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In the first of week long preview of the Colts vs. Pats (deemed El Clásico after a world famous European football rivalry between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid), I’ll take a look at the special teams and coaching of each team.
Bill Belichick: What is there left to say about coach Bill Belichick. Genius. Relentless. Legend. He’s the greatest coach of our generation and perhaps the greatest coach of all-time. The allegations of spygate and the effect the situation has on his legacy is now an afterthought. Belichick – along with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Dean Peas – gameplans better than anyone. From week to week, Belichick and his staff develop diverse strategies which will keep opposing defenses on their toes. Belichick’s credentials are unquestionable and though he’s deflected media attention from this game, you know he’s been gameplanning how to beat the Colts since that fateful day last January.
Tony Dungy: One of the more underrated coaches in the NFL, all Dungy has done is take a team which couldn’t get over the hump with a great quarterback to starting multiple half seasons undefeated and winning the Super Bowl in the 2006 season. Much is made of Peyton Manning’s success having a lot to do with the stability of the coaching staff – he’s had the same offensive coordinator for his entire career. But Dungy came from Tampa Bay to Indianapolis to build a championship defense and may have finally found the right combination of speed and strength. The Colts despise being called a “finesse team” and won the Super Bowl last year because of their defense, not in spite of it. Dungy, Manning and Co. finally found a way to beat the Patriots in the playoffs last year and seemed to gain a psychological edge. With a new smash mouth style defense, on display in the impressive MNF win over Jacksonville last week, Dungy has his team hitting on all cylinders heading into Sunday.
Chris Hanson/Stephen Gostkowski/Willie Andrews/Ellis Hobbs/Wes Welker: The Patriots special teams has yet to be tested. Hanson has only punted 18 times in eight games, the fewest of any punter who has played in every game this year. Gostkowski has only attempted 11 field goals this year, making 10 of them, yet he has only attempted two field goals of 40 yards or more and none from 50 or more. What he HAS done is kicked an amazing 43 PATs this season (that’s more than five a game for those scoring at home and 17 more than any other kicker). But Where Gostkowski is most dangerous is on kickoffs. The 23-year-old has 10 touchbacks already this season, just two fewer than he had all last year.
The Patriots return game is as dangerous as they come. Both Ellis Hobbs and Willie Andrews have kickoff returns for touchdowns, Hobbs chipping in a 108 yarder. Welker as the punt returner has been a spark plug, gaining significant yards each return despite no TDs from returns.
Hunter Smith, Adam Vinatieri, T.J. Rushing: Before this season, Hunter Smith had assumed the position of least used man in the NFL as the Colts punter. That title now belongs to Hanson, but it’s close. Smith boasts just 20 punts on the year with a 42.3 yard average. We all know about Vinatieri. As good as he was for the Pats, he’s been just as good for the Colts. He’s 14 of 15 kicking field goals this year but like Gostkowski hasn’t really been tested – he has zero field goal attempts of 40 yards or more. Still, Vinatieri kicking indoors is as reliable a kicker in big games as anyone in NFL history.
T.J. Rushing handles the kick and punt return duty for the Colts. He’s not a flashy, breakaway player, averaging 25.3 yards per kickoff return and 7.2 yards per punt return. He has zero TDs this season.
Coaching: The advantage has to go to Belichick. Though Dungy has had New England’s number recently (three straight wins overall), he’s never had to face a Belichick coached team with this much talent. Dungy will need to come up with a near perfect defensive scheme simply to stop the Patriots offense. The Colts should be able to score like they have in the past, but now the Patriots actually have the ability to outscore the Indy in a shootout. Edge: Patriots
Punting: I don’t see punting as a factor. Both punters are good at pinning the opposing team down, but even if that’s the case, both offenses are good enough to dig out of those holes. Edge: Push
Kicking: Both Gostkowski and Vinatieri have been relatively untested both in yardage and in game situations this year. With the dome and artificial surface taking out many of the elements, it could come down to sheer clutch kicking ability. We all know that No. 4 has the market cornered in that area. Edge: Colts
Kick/Punt Returning: Willie Andrews and Ellis Hobbs have been incredible in the return game. We all knew coming into this season that Hobbs was a prime time returner, and he validated that hype with his record setting 108-yard kick return against the Jets. The Dolphins kicked away from Hobbs in Week 7 and all Andrews did was return the errant kickoff to the house in a game-changing play. Welker has been very influential in the punt return category and sooner or later will break one. Turnovers on special teams can be incredibly frustrating and so far it hasn’t been a problem for the Pats. Rushing protects the ball but isn’t really a threat to return a kick for a TD. Edge: Patriots
Check back tomorrow as I’ll preview the secondaries!