INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (Dec. 17, 2015) – It would be hyperbole to describe the Indianapolis Colts’ punt return coverage unit an unmitigated disaster, even though it’s on the doorstep of equaling an NFL record for futility.
Instead, we’ll call it a group that’s provided occasional calamity.
“If you lack focus or lack a will or fail to make a play one time, you’ll get exposed,’’ Pro Bowl punter Pat McAfee said Thursday. “That’s the way it is.’’
The way it’s been involves long stretches of solid coverage being completely invalidated by short bursts of inefficiency.
The latest bit of serious leakage occurred in last Sunday’s 51-16 loss at Jacksonville when Rashad Greene gathered in a 50-yard McAfee punt and returned it 73 yards for a touchdown.
McAfee seethed on the sideline.
“It’s not cool and it’s not fun,’’ he said, “and I don’t think I’ve ever been as mad as I was on the sideline of a game as I was at Jacksonville. We had (12) kicking attempts, and (11) of them we held them to no returns.
“It’s mind-blowing that it happened. But in the NFL, if you don’t focus, you’ll get exposed.’’
That was the case the previous week at Pittsburgh when Antonio Brown returned a punt 71 yards for a touchdown. And that was the case against Denver, when Omar Bolden returned a punt on the final play of the second quarter 83 yards for a touchdown.
Of McAfee’s 68 punts, only 30 have been returned. The coverage unit has allowed 114 total yards on 27 of the returns – 4.2 yards per return. But the damage has been done by the 73-, 71- and 83-yard touchdowns.
The three punt returns for touchdowns equal the most allowed in franchise history and are one shy of matching the all-time NFL record.
In fairness, injuries have compromised the integrity of the coverage units. When front-line players on offense and defense are sidelined, their replacements often are core special teams players. More work on offense and defense can lead to less work on special teams.
That situation was further exacerbated at Jacksonville when Winston Guy, the team’s top gunner (a team-high seven solo tackles), missed the game when he woke up with a migraine. He was replaced by Quan Bray, who worked as a gunner for the first time.
“Hopefully we’ll get (Guy) back and that won’t happen, but those are things you have to deal with,’’ coach Chuck Pagano said. “We’ll do a better job. We’ve got to do a better job obviously with punt coverage, everything. We’ve got things to iron out.’’
Pro Bowl fans have spoken:
The voting for fans to help select the Pro Bowl has ended, and five Colts finished among the top 10 at their position.
McAfee was the top vote-getter among punters, while strong safety Mike Adams was No. 3, inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson No. 4, tight end Coby Fleener No. 5 and placekicker Adam Vinatieri No. 10.
“I think it’s pretty cool,’’ McAfee said of leading the players at his position. “I’m so lucky to have the support that I have. I have a big family and they probably get on there and vote. There are so incredible kickers and punters in the league and it’s so difficult to choose. But I do think I’m the best ball kicker in the league right now.’’
And Vinatieri finishing 10th among placekickers?
“I didn’t vote enough,’’ McAfee said.