The Colts' kickoff and punt return coverage have always been the Colts' achilles heel. Year after year the coaching staff and front office promises it will get better yet it rarely does. In last year's playoffs against the Jets, Antonio Cromartie's 47 yard return at the end of the game set up the winning field goal ending the Colts' season.
Naturally it would make sense for the Colts to address (or at least promise to address special teams coverage).
More after the jump.
Well, it looks like the Colts won't have to after all. The NFL will do it for them.
After moving the kickoff tee back to the thirty to counter the league trend of using kickoff specialists to increase touchbacks, the NFL seems to have reversed its stance and has moved the kickoff line back the 35 yard line. I guess with kickoffs going up 200 percent anyway, the NFL figured what's the point. The result however will still have an impact on the gameplay. Touchbacks are likely to further increase, meaning that teams that have the ability to string together long drives with be the main beneficiary.
(Cut to Manning calling Commissioner Goodell to tell him he's not such a bad guy after all).
No team is better at long drives than the Indianapolis Colts. No team defensively will benefit as much either.
Let's start with the offense.
Technically by NFL standards, long drives are considered series that involve 10 or more plays. The Colts last season lead the league in this stat. They also led the league in touchdowns scored off of long drives converting on an incredible 52.5 percent of such drives (that btw is as phenomenal an offensive stat as any Peyton might have earned in recent seasons).
It's no surprise that the Colts led this category because sustaining long drives requires top flight quarterbacks with unflappable focus. It's also not surprising then that the Patriots, Falcons and Eagles (teams with three of the best quarterbacks) were ranked up there with the Colts.
Of course the Colts would like better field position but with Peyton they can overcome the hurdle (imagine if the Colts had an awesome return specialist...sigh).
So when the Colts take the field, we won't see much of a difference. The rule change won't really affect the offense, but it will negate the offense of other teams and thus improve our defense.
If more and more balls continue to sail into the end zone, return specialists will see fewer and fewer chances to produce game changing plays.
As I fan of the NFL in general I think the league is making a mistake. Big returns are one of the more exciting plays in football and were becoming more and more of an important part of the game. Adding that third X factor element was exciting and allowed teams to be creative in building their rosters. It gave teams options. As a fan of the Colts though, its great. No complaints! The NFL could move the tee to the 45 for all I care. Hell, do away with kickoffs entirely. Put the ball at the 10.
The Colts defense doesn't give up big plays. Returns were the only exception to that. Now if Pat McAfee can continue burying balls in the back of the end zone, the Colts defense we be relieved of a major burden. Instead of teams only needing 20 or 30 yards to get into field goal range with starting field position (such as the Jets only needed in our last game), teams will now be looking double that.
Let's see how good Mark Sanchez is then (timeout not included).
For all the 'wrinkles' installed by defensive coordinator Larry Coyer, the Colts defense is still the same bend-but-don't-break strategy as before. While such a design can be maddeningly torturous at times, it does prevent the big play. The Colts typically rank in the top of the league for fewest plays allowed. Of course this doesn't mean our defense can't be improved but it does mean - and if you look back at the teams we play the results will show - that above average quarterbacks are really the only ones that can light up the Colts.
Granted that is an obvious statement. Duh. The better quarterbacks put up better results. But, the rule changes go beyond that. If return games are neutralized it will put further pressure on quarterbacks. It will also negate the running backs as well. Sure five or six yards on average doesn't sound like much. But try telling that to Jay Culter who relies on Devin Hester or whoever is playing qb for the Browns who depends on the field position gained by Joshua Cribbs.
The fact that the Colts don't give up quick strikes and big plays me that our opponents have to be methodical to begin with. Now take off an average of say 30 yards of field position a game. Not only does the quarterback have to be more focused and efficient (not an easy task), the running game suffers because now the team has to spend more energy.
Longer drives also mean more potential third downs as the Colts make opponents work for their yards. Quick strikes don't only translate into huge gains but also more consistent first downs. In 2007 and 2009 the Colts gave up the fewest plays of 20+ yards in the league.
Good luck to Jake Locker, whoever the Browns throw out there, ditto for the Bengals and all the rest of the quarterbacks who aren't elite status because remember, not only will they lose field position, the Colts still have Freeney and Mathis.
How will this ultimately affect the Colts? In the long run, it won't really. Will it lead to eeking out one or two close games?Possibly. But if that game comes in early January it could make all the difference. It would have last year.
* My apologies to Pat McAfee for the unflattering pictures. Photographers don't focus much on kickoffs.