The Bengals at Colts special teams preview looks at the kickoff and punt coverage units, the return teams, plus the kickers and punters for both teams.
The Indianapolis Colts enter the game at 11-5, having conquered the AFC South. On special teams, they employ two strong specialists in Pat McAfee and Adam Vinatieri, in addition to stout coverage units that should create long fields for the Bengals all day.
Cincinnati backs into the playoffs at 10-5-1 after losing two of their last four games and sneaking in as a Wild Card. The Bengals have solid return units led by Adam “Pacman” Jones, who can break a game open with his skill on runbacks.
When Cincinnati Punts
Kevin Huber handled the punting duties for the Bengals with slightly below average performance in the regular season. Huber’s strong leg generated a gross average of 46.8 yards per kick, but his rate stats lack consistency. He places the ball inside the 20-yard line on 37% of his kicks (two points above league average), but struggles on touchbacks with 8.2% of his kicks ending up in the end zone (the NFL averages 7.5%). Huber struggles forcing fair catches, where his 20.5% rate ranked fourth-worst this season. Huber’s issues in that department come from the fact that despite a good leg, he lacks ball control and directional management.
The clearest example happened in the Bengals’ Week 16 tilt against the Denver Broncos. Trailing by one point with 14:20 left in the game, Cincinnati had a chance to pin the Broncos deep in their territory. Punting from their own 48-yard line, Huber fired off this punt:
Punters in this situation have two options: They can kick for the sidelines to contain the returner, or aim for the 10-yard line with good time in the air to force a fair catch. Huber did neither, weakly kicking the ball 37 yards with just 3.6 seconds of hang time to the Denver 15. Returner Wes Welker picked up six yards, letting the Broncos start the drive at the 21-yard line. Huber would have been better off hitting a touchback.
However, despite Huber’s limitations in determining where his kicks end up, the Cincinnati punt coverage is a very solid unit. They give up 7.5 yards per return, good for eighth in the league. The Bengals coverage isn’t flashy, relying more on grit than style, but it consistently prevents big plays from the opposing return game.
Across the line of scrimmage, the Colts return team offers little excitement. Averaging only 6.9 yards per return and with a season-best effort of only 22 yards, this squad doesn’t seem to have any goal other than holding onto the football. Their strategy appears non-existent at times, with very little organization to their scheme:
Circled in yellow are nine Colts during a return against the Houston Texans: Two lying on the ground, four beyond blocking proximity of any Texans, one somewhat engaged on a block, and another watching that somewhat-engaged block, with the remaining player the only one actively blocking. It is essentially impossible to figure out their intentions on this play. Unfortunately for Indianapolis, this pattern continues through other returns as well:
The above play exhibits improvement over the previous example, but still nothing for the Colts to hang their horseshoes on. However, let’s look at how Indianapolis actually got to that point:
Indicated in yellow, the Colts rush five men, a clear signal they intend to focus on the return rather than block the punt. However, the linemen on the Indianapolis return team missed the memo:
For some inexplicable reason, one Colts rusher (circled in yellow) attempts to block the punt, rendering him completely useless in the return game. Next to him is another Colt focused on watching the attempted punt block instead of getting downfield to block for his returner. This results in the scene we saw earlier:
These two players are now at the 50-yard line and completely out of the play. Two Colts are in positions to make meaningful blocks, but the rest do not appear to have any coherent strategy that would improve upon their 6.9-yard return average. In conclusion, when imagery suggests dysfunction, statistics usually reflect it.
When Indianapolis Punts
Indianapolis employs super-punter McAfee, named to his first Pro Bowl in 2014. What makes McAfee so super? Sit back and watch him bring the wood to Broncos returner Trindon Holliday in 2013:
Beyond living every punter’s dream, McAfee ranks as one of the top specialists in the NFL. His 46.7-yard gross average rates nearly the same as Huber’s, but McAfee makes his mark with superb distance control. He plants 43.5% of his kicks inside the 20-yard line, besting the NFL average by eight percent. Beyond that, he holds the fifth-lowest touchback percentage in the NFL at 4.3%, and the second-lowest among teams with an actual offense (the Bears, Buccaneers, and Raiders should be disqualified from this category). McAfee rates merely average on fair catches, inducing them on 27.5% of punts compared to the 27.4% NFL mean.
Indianapolis runs a clean battery, with no blocked kicks on the year and snap-to-kick times in the 1.9- to 2.1-second range. McAfee makes his money with his outstanding hang time, which consistently sits in the 4.6- to 4.8-second range.
Much like their return unit, the Colts coverage team lacks style. However, the unit overcomes disorganization to produce effective results. Indianapolis gives up only 5.9 yards per return, good for third in the NFL. Much of this owes to McAfee’s ridiculous hang time, which allows the coverage team to set up in disarray (as shown below) yet still somehow avoid giving up a touchdown:
Circled in yellow, six Colts are in position to be walled off by a number of Washington blockers to the right (circled in red). However, they work downfield to limit the damage, though not with an ideal approach by any means.
Indianapolis will have to be on their game, as the Cincinnati return unit stands as one of the league’s best. Jones, the primary returner for the Bengals, racked up 11.9 yards per runback despite no touchdowns on the year. This illustrates his consistency throughout his returns, a product of his remarkable shiftiness and vision.
The Bengals run a number of different returns, but typically look to create lanes up the sidelines. Against the Broncos, they employed a left return early in the game:
Indicated in yellow, five Cincinnati blockers are positioned to seal off Denver defenders. Jones (indicated by the blue arrow) has a clear lane up the left numbers and ends up taking the return back for a significant gain.
Later in the game, the Bengals choose to return the ball to the right. Here’s the scene shortly after the ball gets kicked:
On the left of the screen, two Cincinnati players work downfield. The outside Bengal is still to the right of the Bronco he engages with, with the inside Bengal already outside of his block. As the play continues, they display tremendous effort to set up for their blocks:
Notice both players, now several yards outside their men, in perfect position to execute blocks that will create space up the numbers. This shows phenomenal effort, and another reason why Jones can consistently change field position for the Bengals.
Much like the matchup in the Pittsburgh-Baltimore game when the Ravens punt, this promises to be one of the best special teams clashes of the playoffs, featuring two equal units who should give fans a treat on Sunday.
When Cincinnati Kicks Off
Bengals placekicker Mike Nugent has a capable leg but lacks standout strength, forcing touchbacks on 45.7% of his kicks (slightly below the league average of 52.3%. Their kickoff coverage unit rates somewhat better, giving up 25.5 yards per return (1.7 yards above the NFL mean).
Cincinnati could have their hands full against Indianapolis, as the Colts possess one of the top kickoff return teams in the league. Averaging 28 yards per runback, good for third in the league, the Colts have a number of different schemes to create leverage. Witness this return to the right against the Giants:
On the kick, two Indianapolis blockers immediately drop off towards the left of the frame. They intend to loop and force two Giants back towards the right of the screen. As the play unfolds, they execute it perfectly:
Indicated with yellow blocking targets, these two players are now perfectly set up to seal off the Giant defenders in the middle of the field, essentially cutting the field in half. Circled in yellow, four Colts near the end zone will provide blocking up the left sideline for the returner.
Indianapolis has an advantage in this aspect of special teams, and may be able to create relatively short fields for their offense.
When Indianapolis Kicks Off
Unlike most teams, the Colts employ their punter as their kickoff specialist. McAfee has an absolutely massive leg, ranking second in the league with a 72.9% touchback percentage. Beyond that, Indianapolis has one of the stronger coverage units in the NFL, allowing only 22.6 yards per return.
Meanwhile, the Bengals lag behind the Colt return team, averaging 27.6 yards per runback. Jones and Brandon Tate, both capable of breaking for long distances with Jones the more dangerous of the two, receive the kicks for Cincinnati.
This should be another tremendous matchup, though Indianapolis has a slight edge here because of McAfee.
Nugent is a lower-tier, weak-legged kicker, connecting on just 9 of 22 field goals from beyond 50 yards over his career, and failing on all three attempts from that range this season. Further, Nugent was one of only four qualifying kickers with accuracy below 80% for the season. He presents a weakness for the Bengals, which could be a factor in a close playoff game.
The Colts feature Adam Vinatieri as their placekicker:
Summary: Bengals at Colts Special Teams Preview
This game that features several strong units, most notably the Colts punt team and the Bengals return squad. Special teams may prove decisive, as Nugent’s weak kicking game could doom the Bengals, while threats for game-changing returns exist for both teams. Overall, the Colts have the edge here due to Vinatieri’s consistency and the strength of their coverage units.
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Chuck Zodda knows the importance of staying in your lane, how to fake a punt return, thehumanity of punters, proper placekicking technique and the Jets.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.