Colts Training Camp 2008: Working on special teams

It's really not from a lack of hard work. Really, it isn't. Every training camp, the Colts dedicate about three entire afternoon practices a week just to special teams play. This means punt and kick coverage, field goals, on-side kicks, situational work (muffed punts, kicks), hook-and-laterals, you name it. They drill and drill and drill until it starts looking like the units actually know what they're doing.

Then the regular season hits, and it's one mistake after another.

We've long been proponents of the FIRE RUSS PURNELL NOW! club for the simple reason that despite a lot of talent on the roster the last view years, Indy's special teams coverage units have just plain sucked. Last year, the suckage spiled over into the kicking game, with money-man Adam Vinatieri getting kicks blocked and missing gimme FGs. The regular season game at San Diego was the culmination of a total special teams screw job.

1 punt returned for a TD against the Colts.

1 kickoff returned for a TD against the Colts.

1 missed gimme FG in the closing seconds that would have won the game despite giving up two returns for TDs.

It really is enough to make one vomit, especially when you know that without these special teams screw-ups, San Diego gets blown out at home and (possibly) doesn't make the playoffs. Part of the reason the Colts suffered so much last year on special teams was injuries, but I have always thought that a cheap excuse. This is not rocket science, folks.

Tackle. The. Friggin. Guy.

Darrensproles2_medium

Ugh!

Photo via brian-oliver.com

Fortunately, this season, the Colts might finally have some veterans on special teams that can teach the young guys how to tackle. We all know and love Darrell Reid. He kind of sucks as a DT, but as a special teams gunner he is best described as Hurricane Darrell. I could post the video one more time of Darrell launching Chris Henry into orbit, but you've likely seen too much of it.

Oh, who am I kidding! Here it is you raskles:

Oh, how I love that play. This year, Reid is taking a more pro-active role as a leader on special teams. Maybe, just maybe, Darrell Reid might be the special teams ace the Colts have so desperately needed. In addition to Darrell, guys like Marcus Howard, Curtis Johnson, Dante Hughes, and Roy Hall will provide more speed and down-the-field ability than last year's group. Curtis Johnson's willingness to play special teams is a good sign that he will make the active roster as a situational pass rusher and a special teamer:

Johnson was on every special team unit in college at I-AA Clark, but concedes covering NFL kicks is more challenging.

"It's different having assignments instead of just running down and getting the ballcarrier," Johnson said.

...

Special teams coach Russ Purnell is encouraged by newcomers such as Johnson, an undrafted defensive end who cared enough about assignments that he asked for extra coaching after a recent practice.

"They're working hard and I hope they're learning; they seem to be," Purnell said. "Every day, they seem to get better at it."

Well, maybe this is a little harder than it seems, and it is encouraging to see players like Johnson working hard to get better at it. Based on what I saw in the Hall of Fame game, I am cautiously optimistic about the coverage units this year. They looked good in that game. If they impress against Carolina, I might start to soften on my FIRE RUSS PUNELL NOW! stance a little bit.

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Since this Tuesday, the Colts have used several players in the role of kick and punt returner. T.J. Rushing is still the primary returner, but Tony Dungy is still searching for someone on the team that can make a difference as a returner.

The sixth-round draft pick Garcon had a strong showing lining up at wide receiver Sunday, and his return success could give the team an added boost as well. Rookie Defensive back Keiwan Ratliff, running back Clifton Dawson and wide receiver Devin Aromashodu also worked with the kickoff return teams Tuesday.

Coach Tony Dungy was pleased with the group of return men during Sunday’s game.

"I thought T.J. Rushing and Pierre each had an outstanding return," said Dungy. "That was good to see, our special teams get going the way they did."

In an interview on Colts.com, Dungy said Aromashodu will return more punts and kicks Saturday against Carolina. They also want to see Chad Simpson and Samuel Giguere return some kicks. All week, the Colts have worked these guys into the return game. I learned from last week not to judge too harshly when it comes to evaluating special teams in practice. Pierre Garcon was horrible in practice last week returning, but in the HoF game he looked very good.

One thing I'll give T.J. Rushing credit for: He isn't going to give up his job easily. Rushing has worked hard to improve his return game, even adopting some Manning-like qualities:

Rushing has done his homework to further improve his skills in the return game. While most fans picture Peyton Manning dissecting hours of film during the offseason, Rushing has done the same to improve.

"Look at a bunch of tape from last year, see where I made maybe one wrong cut, maybe should’ve went left and went right," Rushing said. "Try to make the game slow down. There’s just little intricate things you can do to make the game easier for everyone."

If T.J. manages to fight off Garcon and others to retain his job, that means T.J. has become an even more dangerous return threat. And if the Colts managed to gain such a threat, woe to the opponent. I will be focusing on this aspect of the game more closely as pre-season unfolds.

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