Some Colts defensive starters will be on kick coverage vs. Chargers
For a second straight year, the Indianapolis Colts' special teams units have been anything but special, and the poor performance of the kick coverage groups during the regular season definitely will prompt changes for Sunday's divisional-round game against San Diego.
Coach Tony Dungy acknowledged during the week of preparation for the matchup with the Chargers that Indianapolis will field "the best coverage units that we can have out there," and that they will include "the usual suspects."
Translation: Two or three defensive starters will pull double duty on Sunday running down under kickoffs and punts.
"It's the playoffs, and you have to be ready to do whatever it takes to win, and in every aspect of the game," said third-year veteran cornerback Marlin Jackson, who is in his first season as a starter, but who has contributed on special teams in the past. "It's kind of like 'all hands on deck' time, you know?"
The Indianapolis special teams were certainly dicey again in 2007, surrendering three kickoff returns for touchdowns and one punt return for a score. In 2006, Colts' opponents had a combined three touchdowns on kickoff and punt runbacks.
Of the seven other franchises in the divisional round, only two, Jacksonville and Dallas, surrendered more than one kick return for a score during the season.
The need for improved kick coverage will be magnified Sunday, not just because of the significance of the game, but because of who the Colts are facing.
In the regular-season contest between the two teams, San Diego return ace Darren Sproles ran back the opening kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown. Ten minutes later, he registered a 45-yard punt return for a score. Those were key plays in a 23-21 defeat that also featured a missed 29-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri in the final minute.
Even Vinatieri, a potential future Hall of Fame member, has struggled this season. He has converted only 23 of 29 field goal tries and hasn't made a kick of longer than 39 yards all season. His average field goal has been for just 27.3 yards and only 11 of his 23 field goals were from more than 25 yards.
Vinatieri hasn't converted a kick of longer than 39 yards since nailing a 42-yarder versus New England in the AFC Championship Game 18 games ago. And he boomed only nine touchbacks during the season.
Punter Hunter Smith was so shaky at one point in the season that personnel officials brought in potential replacements to audition for his job.
Still, the most glaring deficiency has been in covering kicks.
Opponents have averaged 25.0 yards on kickoff returns and 13.9 yards on punt returns. The average starting point for the opposition offense following a kickoff return was the 29-yard line, and the Colts held teams inside the 20-yard line on returns just 10 times.
"We've got to be better," Jackson allowed. "In the playoffs, it's the little detail stuff that can win or lose you a game. So you really can't leave anything to chance."
Jackson could be one of several defensive starters asked to play on the coverage teams on Sunday afternoon. Weakside linebacker Freddy Keiaho, strongside 'backer Tyjuan Hagler, and even defensive end Robert Mathis, all of whom earned their stripes in the NFL running down under kickoffs and punts, could also see action on special teams.
"If they need me," said Mathis, the team's best pass rusher, "I'll be out there."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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