Colts Kickoff Coverage: Is it Really Better?

The Colts kickoff coverage was ranked 21st in the league heading into Week 6, better than their 30th ranking from 2006. But has it really improved? Ed Thompson points out some areas of improvement and some areas of concern -- along with detailed stats to back them up.

Last year's kickoff coverage by the Indianapolis Colts was so inconsistent that head coach Tony Dungy started inserting starters to plug the numerous leaks that had earned the unit a 30th-ranking out of the league's 32 teams.

During the regular season, the Colts allowed an average of 26.0 yards per return against a league average of just 22.5 yards.

That doesn't sound like that big of a deal though, right?

Well, it was the big returns that continued to pop up and left scars and doubts. Indianapolis allowed a league-worst nine returns of 40 yards or more and a league-worst 18 returns of 30 yards or more. That's what really kept people on edge every time they watched the team get ready to kick off. By comparison, the average NFL team only allowed nine returns of 30 yards or more -- half of what the eventual World Champions allowed over the course of the regular season.

As teams headed into this season's Week 6 action the Colts were ranked 21st in the league in kickoff coverage. So they must be doing better, right?

Well, not exactly.

Their current average is 25.4 yards allowed per return, which is only worse than the league average by a single yard. But it's also only 0.6 yards better than last year's average allowed. Kickoff returns across the league are up by almost two yards per return so far this season.

While the team has allowed just one return of more than 50 yards, they've allowed a total of six so far for more than 30 yards. That means that 22.2 percent of their kickoffs result in a return of at least 30 yards against a league average of 16.7 percent. Last year they averaged 23.1 percent. So they're still showing that they're more vulnerable to big runbacks than the typical NFL team.


Adam Vinatieri kicks off
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

You might be wondering how much of the situation falls on the shoulders of kicker Adam Vinatieri. Well, so far his percentage of touchbacks has improved. He's booting 18.2 percent into the end zone versus 13.7 percent last year, raising his ranking in that category from 16th to 12th in the league this season.

He's also improved the length of his kickoffs by two yards from 65.8 to 67.8 yards, which translates to an average catch-point of roughly the 2-yard line by the opponent.

At first blush it may seem only fair to take into consideration that fact that the Colts have to cover more kickoffs than the typical NFL team because of their high-powered offense. So surely, with additional kicks to cover, they're going to have a few more gaffes in coverage, making their number look worse. That's what I initially thought, and in raw numbers that's true, but not when you look at the percentages.

Last year only three teams kicked off more than the Colts' 78 times -- San Diego, Chicago and Dallas. While Indianapolis allowed 26.0 yards per return, those three teams all allowed less than 22 yards per return. And the Cowboys -- who had 80 kickoffs to cover -- allowed an average of just 19.6 yards per return, second-best in the NFL and just six returns of 30 or more yards last season.

Further proof that the coverage unit hasn't improved much is found in the opponent's average start point when they try to return the ball rather than taking a touchback. Last year, teams returned Vinatieri's kickoffs out to an average starting point of 28.9 yards from the goal line. This year, that's down to 26.8 yards. But remember, Vinatieri has been booting the ball two yards deeper, so that pretty much covers the 2.1-yard improvement.

That said, the Colts have had to fill some significant gaps this year on their coverage teams, so you can't be too critical of their current situation. Of the six players who finished the 2006 season with double-digit special teams tackles -- Rob Morris (19), Freddy Keiaho (15), Rocky Boiman (11), Marlin Jackson (11) and Darrell Reid (11) -- Reid is the only current non-starter seeing regular special teams action because the rest have moved into starter roles. With Morris on injured reserve, you can expect to see even less of Boiman on the coverage teams as well.

But there are some players who are doing a noteworthy job on special teams coverage (punt and kickoff) who have stepped up to fill some of those gaps. Rookie Dante Hughes leads the team with six special teams tackles so far -- all solo efforts -- while Tyjuan Hagler and Darrell Reid share second-place honors with five each. Four of Hagler's hits have been solo efforts. Safety Matt Giordano has also been hustling, logging three tackles (all solo) during the first five games.

All in all, it looks as though the team is in for another interesting season on kickoff return coverage. Some of the younger players such as Hughes, Ramon Guzman, Keyunta Dawson, Melvin Bullitt and Cliff Session are showing good results and even greater potential. Hopefully as they get more experience they'll be able to strengthen the play of the kickoff coverage unit in time for a strong postseason performance.

Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the Scout.com network and are syndicated through FOXSports.com. You can contact him by email through this link.


Statistics referenced in this article are provided by STATS, LLC. Copyright 2007 by STATS, LLC. Any use or distribution of such Licensed Materials without the express written consent of STATS is strictly prohibited. 



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