Eleventh of a Position-by-Position Series on the Colts' Roster
INDIANAPOLIS - When it comes to Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy's assessment of the special teams, it's relatively simple.
The units had good moments in the 2007 season. They made big plays - game-changing plays - and improvement was made in spots.
The goal for the 2008 season can be summed up in three words.
Consistency, consistency, consistency.
From returns, to coverage units, to kicks and punts, Dungy said the Colts' special teams - a unit that ranked 31st in the NFL overall according to the annual rankings released by the Dallas Morning News – must be more consistent next season.
"We have to be better there," Dungy said recently in an interview with Colts.com on the team's special teams, which concludes a position-by-position series that ran in recent weeks.
"Many of those guys learned and grew and that's one place it's always going to be a little tough. Many times, because of our salary-cap situation, we're replacing those guys."
Dungy pointed to last season's roster as an example.
In 2005 and 2006, cornerbacks Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson had been two of the Colts' top special teams players. In 2007, the tandem moved into the starting lineup, moves that helped the defense improve to a third overall ranking.
"It's good for the defense," Dungy said, "but you have to replace them (on special teams). Even if you replace them with second- or third-round draft choices, it's still guys who have to learn how to do that, because in most cases, that hasn't been what they've done in college."
The Colts' coverage units, after allowing three touchdowns in 2006 – as well as one in Super Bowl XLI – allowed four this past season, one on a punt return and three on kickoff returns. Indianapolis allowed opponents 25.0 yards per kickoff return, 31st in the NFL, with kicker Adam Vinatieri registering nine touchbacks.
"He kicked off as well this year as any kickoff guy I've been around in a long, long time," Dungy said. "That was good to see, that the age doesn't look like it's having any impact on his leg or the leg strength."
The kickoff return total, Dungy said, overshadowed the first seven games of the season when "we probably kicked off as well as we ever had here."
"We have very good coverage, with the exception of one play at Houston (in Week 2) when we had a re-kick," Dungy said. "We had some people hurt, got some people hurt on defense and some of those guys became starters. We didn't do a good enough job filling in.
"I think that unit is capable and should be like it was the first two months of the season."
Darrell Reid, a defensive tackle, emerged as one of the team's top special teams players, leading the team with 22 special teams tackles, and earning AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors in December.
On punts, the Colts allowed a league-high 13.9 yards per return, with punter Hunter Smith ranking 10th in the AFC with a 41.9-yard average and 18 punts inside the 20.
"We had a tough time because we had some punts early in the year that got returned and then we're doing different things, trying to place it," Dungy said. "Punting for us is a tough job, because you may only have one or two punts in the course of a game that really matter. We're punting going in where you're trying to chip the ball down in there or you go two and a half quarters without a punt and then you need one.
"That's the thing we're going to work with him on and we want to improve – that consistency. You may only have one punt per game that we need. He's had to deal with that, and that's part of being a punter for this team."
Of Smith and Vinatieri, Dungy added, "They had good years, both of them – probably not as good as they would like and what we think they can do, but we're looking forward to getting them back in that groove."
Vinatieri converted 23 of 29 field goals and 49 of 51 extra points, scoring 118 points – the 12th time in 12 NFL seasons he has scored more than 100 points.
"Adam had one stretch there where he missed some field goals that we're used to seeing him make," Dungy said. "That happens, but I don't think anyone ever felt like the next kick he wasn't going to make."
Second-year veteran T.J. Rushing returned 19 punts for a 13.1 yards average and returned a 90-yarder for a touchdown against Oakland. He also returned 31 kickoffs for a 23-yard average.
He finished 12th in the AFC in kickoff returns and while he did not have enough returns to qualify for the AFC leaders in punt returns, his average would have ranked third in the AFC.