It was, all in all, a very disappointing season for the special teams units across the board. From the coverage units to the return units, from the punting of Hunter Smith to the erratic accuracy of Adam Vinatieri in the RCA Dome and his seeming inability to even attempt of a field goal longer than 40 yards, this was an aspect of the team that the coaching staff would like to forget.
When one-third of your game is lacking, the other two-thirds must pick up the slack. Fortunately, the offense and defense for the Colts were able to do so in 2007. They may not be as fortunate in 2008 in an improving division and a tough conference overall.
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Darrell Reid, in addition to being a welcome surprise in the defensive tackle position, was a stalwart in the coverage teams, particularly as a wedge buster on kickoffs. Pro Bowl voters took notice of his effort in the kicking game and Reid was voted as an alternate.
T.J. Rushing stepped in as the full time kick and punt returner at the halfway point of the season, averaging a stellar 13.9 yards on punt returns, including one for a touchdown, and turning in a decent average of 23 yards per return on 31 kickoff runbacks.
Rushing replaced rookie Craphonso Thorpe, who many thought would be a huge contributor as a return man after being called up from the practice squad. Thorpe disappointed, however, too often heading for the sidelines and attempting to cut inside instead of taking the return inside-out.
While Rushing started the season as the primary return option, his production, particularly on punt returns, was a pleasant surprise.
Though he converted nearly 80 percent of his attempts, Vinatieri was not his usual reliable self in the wind-free confines of the RCA Dome.
Usually known for his icy veins and clutch kicks, Vinatieri missed a potential game-winning 23-yard field goal against San Diego in Week 10 and went the entire regular season without attempting a field goal longer than 40 yards.
While that speaks to the offense's tremendous ability to move the chains from midfield to the red zone, the Colts also attempted a number of fourth down conversions over the course of the season in lieu of going for three.
Smith posted numbers that were either at or above his career averages, but he will be under in the gun in 2008, as the Colts signed former Texan and 49er Chad Stanley to the 2008 roster. Smith posted a respectable 41.9 yard gross average and his 34.2 yard net average was more as a result of poor coverage after the kick than the result of a great deal of line drive kicks by Smith right down the middle of the field.
The coverage unit, at best, experienced an up-and-down season, giving up four returns for touchdowns, including two to Darren Sproles in the Week 10 contest against the Chargers. On the whole, the coverage teams improved as the season wore on and more starters were mixed in with the reserves.
However, they may not be able use anyone from the starting 11 on the coverage unit next season, so the group as a whole is going to have to grow up quickly.
Since Indianapolis has outstanding depth at a number of the positions that are generally involved in coverage and return units — defensive tackles, linebackers, cornerbacks — they should be able to add depth to their return and coverage units in general through the draft. Backup linebackers Clint Session and Brandon Archer gained game experience when a number of regulars missed time with injuries in 2007 and they will be able to use that experience to be more effective in the kicking game.
Additionally, reserves such as Reid, Quinn Pitcock, and possibly even Ed Johnson, who started every game in 2007 in place of Anthony McFarland, should all continue to excel. Finally, while he was certainly overmatched at times on defense, Tim Jennings is a valued contributor on special teams.
Look for the Colts to address the two areas where they lack depth in the third phase of the game, the offensive line and wide receiver, in April's draft.
Without many glaring needs that would have to be filled in the second day, Indianapolis will have the luxury of bolstering the special teams unit with youngsters that have something to prove.This will also allow them to save starters that have already proven themselves from unnecessary injury while playing gunner on punts or wedge buster on kickoffs.
It was a poor season on many levels for the Colts, but the outlook for 2008, assuming that Bill Polian has another strong draft, looks very promising.