Key Matchup: Hall vs Colts Special Teams

Kansas City returns specialist Dante Hall isn't having the kind of season he hoped, but neither are the Colts coverage units on special teams. If one of them gets a decided edge in their matchup this Saturday, it could have a huge impact on the game. Greg Talmage tells you all about it...

In addition to their run defense, one other glaring trouble spot for the Indianapolis Colts this season has been their coverage units. Colts opponents have an average starting field position of 30.3-yard-line after kickoffs, which puts the Colts 30th in the NFL in that category. And their punt coverage ranking is even worse -- 31st in the league allowing just over 13 yards per punt.

In 13 of 16 games played this year, Indianapolis allowed a kickoff return of 31 yards or more and allowed kick returns of 41 yards or more in nine of their 16 games, including thee that went for 88, 93 and 103 yards.

Team President Bill Polian was very critical of this unit on his radio show last week when asked if it can be fixed. His response was, "Yes, it can. You change the people if necessary. You change some of the things you're doing scheme-wise. It's really a matter of effort. The right people. The right effort. Put them in a position to make a play and let them make a play. We're 30th in the league covering kickoffs. That's not acceptable. Not with the kind of athletes we have."

Now you can see why head coach Tony Dungy indicated during his postgame press conference on Sunday that personnel changes on special teams were likely for the playoffs. The Colts just cannot afford to let the Chiefs and Larry Johnson start drives in prime field position. Their defense needs every potential advantage possible. And if the Chiefs are starting near the 40 as opposed to inside the 20, for example, it just makes everything that much easier for Kansas City.

Colts DE Robert Mathis (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
So what does Dungy mean when he says "personnel changes"? On Monday, he indicated that could involve placing several defensive starters on coverage units. He said, in fact, "You can look for a lot of people - (defensive end) Robert Mathis, (cornerback/safety) Marlin Jackson, (safety) Bob Sanders if he's healthy."

"Whoever we have to put in there, we will do that," Dungy said. "We're kicking the ball pretty well. We have to get it covered a little bit better."

Whatever changes the Colts make to their coverage units they better be efficient and effective, because this week the challenge is Dante Hall. And while Hall may be having a quiet season by his own standards, he is always a threat to return one. Heck, the Sports Network even went so far to say this about Dante Hall in their 2006 pre-season scouting report of him: "The best return man since Ricky Upchurch and possibly the best ever."

This season Dante Hall is averaging nearly 23 yards per kickoff return with no touchdowns, but he has three returns over 40 yards. Compared to past years, this one has been quite a struggle for Hall. His head coach, Herm Edwards, and special-teams coach, Mike Priefer, speculate that some of Hall's struggles are due to an ever-changing return team, one cobbled together because of injuries and a revolving door of young faces.

"He just maybe doesn't really believe in everything we're doing yet," Priefer says. "We have to open more holes for him ... we've got to attack people where they're vulnerable, and our young people need to block better for him."

Hall says he's frustrated with his return performance this season because he feels as if he has let his teammates down. In training camp, he talked about how he wanted five touchdown returns and set that as a goal.

"I worry about my teammates," Hall recently told the Kansas City Star. "I'm accountable to my teammates. I feel like I have goals and standards that I have set, and when you don't meet them it hurts, especially when you work your butt off. You know what I mean? I could see if I didn't work my butt off or the guys weren't working their butt off."

That frustration could all subside though if Dante Hall is able to bust one in an all important playoff game. Just how well the "new" Colts coverage unit does against Dante Hall, ironically, is the X-factor for the Colts this week.

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