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Grading the Colts' Special Teams Unit

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The Indianapolis Colts have been amongst the best teams in the NFL in terms of special teams, and here’s why.

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Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

The Indianapolis Colts special teams have been a strong unit in the Chuck Pagano era. They’ve been able to score a lot of points because of their consistency in the kicking game and their explosive (but rare) big plays. They do not allow many big plays either. Let’s break down and grade each facet of the special teams unit this year.

Adam Vinatieri, despite his old age (for NFL players), has been amongst the best NFL kickers over the past few seasons. He has made 26 consecutive field goals and is 20 for 20 this season, which is remarkable for any kicker at any age. He can still make the long kicks as well, as he made a 50 yard field goal this season and made a 53-yard field goal in the preseason. He’s also someone you don’t need to worry about with the game on the line. Of course, anything can happen but if you had to pick one person to kick a game winning field goal, you’re going to go with the guy who kicked the game winner in two Super Bowls. For a guy who is at the end of his career, he’s surprisingly at the top of his game.

Speaking of being at the top of their game, McAfee is at the top of his game. McAfee was named "Special Teams Player of the Week" in mid-October and is towards the top of every major punting statistic. Despite being known for having a smart leg (and a quirky personality), McAfee has done his best work burying teams inside their own 10 yard line. This example here demonstrates McAfee punting a ball only 30 yards, but placing perfectly and leaving their opponents on their own 9 yard line.

The Colts are on the 39 yard line. It's too long for Vinatieri and they put in McAfee. The more conservative call is to punt it right, give Pat some space and to get some air under it so that there is no return and that he takes some distance off the ball. The more aggressive approach is to punt to his left, as it's easier for his players to get to that area. This requires a punt with a lot of air under it as well as some good precision. He doesn't want to hit it out of bounds and give the Titans some free yards, but he obviously doesn't want to kick it in the endzone.

What he ends up doing is placing a perfect amount of air under it so that he has 2 guys within 5 yards of him, ensuring that he will not return it. On top of that, he didn't punt it out of bounds and he wasn't too overly aggressive and trying to get it at the one yard. What he did was smart in getting it to the 10 yard line. McCluster (Titans (white) returner) ends up fair catching the ball and the Titans start their drive at the 9 yard line. What people see on the stat-sheet is a 30 yard punt (which looks bad on paper), but will be credited with an "Inside 20" stat. We can talk all day about his 50+ yard punts that he gets off on a daily basis, but it's these precision punts that bury opponents. One can arguet that he's a weapon as he's giving his opponents a disadvantage. Either way, this is an example of his precision coming in handy.

For those wondering as well, his punt average is higher than his career average and it's in the top 10. He also has 16 "Inside the 20 Yard Line" punts, which are just as important, if not more important, than his punt yard averages. That number of 16 also puts him in the top 10. Perhaps the most important stat is his net average, and it tells you where teams are situated after his punts. McAfee has a net punt average of 43.6, which is 2nd best in the NFL and tells you that teams don't have big returns off his punts. This is thanks in part to a good coverage unit which we'll also look into. He is a special talent, who is on his way to a Pro Bowl as well as a few All Pro teams.

When looking at the coverage teams, there are two stats which you should immediately look at before anything else, and those are the average return yards stat and the touchdown returns stat. The Colts have not allowed any punt or kick return touchdowns this season. Opponents have averaged 21.6 yards on kick returns and 4.1 yards on punt returns. These are ridiculously low numbers. The Colts beat those averages. Opponents have only been able to return 17 of McAfee's 36 punts (47.22%) because either the coverage team is there quickly or the punt goes out of bounds or through the endzone. Considering McAfee tends to aims his punts in bounds and that he only has two touchbacks, it's the coverage group that deserves a lot of credit. Colt Anderson and Loucheiz Purifoy grade out as the two best special team players on the Colts (according to Pro Football Focus), and each have a few tackles apiece. This is a strong unit with a bunch of players with a "gunner" mentality.

In terms of returning the ball, this is where the Colts can improve. WIth Griff Whalen at punt returner, you give away the chance of having a big play for reliability and small positive gains. This is neither good or bad and it purely depends on what the coaching mentality is. If you want to have some big plays, then they should have Moncrief or Hilton in there. However, taking more risks means having the chance of a negative play, like going backwards on a return or fumbling the ball. Griff is as sure handed as they come. He has only one lost fumble this season, and 26 returns giving him a fumble rate of 3.84%, which is relatively average.

In terms of kick returns, Griff is also the man here. This is where the Colts need to change up their mentality. Having a sure handed punt returner is something, but they need someone explosive as a kick returner. The fact of the matter is, the Colts have only 16 kick returns this season (an average of about 2 a game), and that's a low number because of all the touchbacks. In my opinion, if you get a guy like Donte Moncrief back there, who can make plays, then you give the Colts a good chance of getting extra yardage on those kick returns, even if there's only one or two a game. Moncrief is much faster and quicker than Whalen and would not be a worry with the football. Moncrief gives the Colts more explosion on kickoff returns, but Griff's 25.3 return yards average is better than Cordarelle Patterson, Devin Hester and Dwayne Harris, all players who are known for their returning skills (especially the first two). So, Griff isn't a terrible option back there, and this could be a bit too much nitpicking.

Overall, this team is very solid on special teams and amongst the best in the NFL. In short, they have a kicker who hasn't missed since the middle of last season, a punter who's perfect combination of power and precision puts him amongst the best punters in the league, and have a coverage unit that doesn't allow any touchdowns, let alone any big plays.

If we use a grading scale of:

A -- Excellent -- Exceeding Expectations

B -- Very Good -- Slightly Better than their Expectations

C -- Average/Mediocre -- On Par or Just Below their Expectations

D -- Bad -- Below Expectations

F -- Failure -- Amongst the Worst Units in the League

I would give the Colts an A, indicating that they have exceeded my expectations of them and that there are arguably the best group in the league.