The Colts' elite special teams were exactly what the Packers expected, and they executed perfectly

Jim Owczarski
Packers News

INDIANAPOLIS - At the start of the week, Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur acknowledged the special teams unit of the Indianapolis Colts as one of the premier groups in the league. And heading into the game Sunday, LaFleur and special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga had an idea the Colts were going to stress the Packers’ third phase — and they did throughout a 34-31 overtime loss at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Colts special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone’s game plan centered on making Darrius Shepherd return kicks as punter and kickoff specialist Rigoberto Sanchez consistently lofted kickoffs high and to the goal line, forcing the Packers’ second-year man and the blocking unit to earn the right to start a drive at the 25.

Mennenga said a goal for the Packers is to always win the starting field-position battle, but in making Shepherd return each kick, the Colts gained precious yardage Sunday.

Green Bay Packers wide receiver Darrius Shepherd (82) runs the ball while Indianapolis Colts defensive back Tavon Wilson (31) defends in the first half at Lucas Oil Stadium.

There was only one touchback, which the Packers received by virtue of a replay as Shepherd let the ball go and it checked up on the goal line and back into the field of play.

“You could see it,” LaFleur said of the kickoff plan. “They were definitely kicking that sucker high and making us return it.”

The Packers couldn’t take advantage, however.

Shepherd had one nice return, a long of 30 yards, at the end of the first quarter but he averaged only 19.7 per return and had a crucial fumble at the start of the fourth quarter. That gave the Colts the ball back at the Green Bay 28-yard line and set up a go-ahead Colts field goal to make it 31-28.

The Colts did "win" the starting field position game, beginning at their own 26.6-yard line after kickoffs, even without top returner Isaiah Rodgers (knee). The Packers' average start was their own 23.

The Colts only punted twice, and there were no returns. But, Shepherd elected to let Sanchez’s lone fourth-quarter punt go and it was downed at the Packers’ 6-yard line. Fortunately for the Packers, Aaron Rodgers hit Marquez Valdes-Scantling on a 47-yard completion to get out of the shadow of the goal post and set up Mason Crosby’s tying field goal that forced overtime.

Packers punter JK Scott did not travel with the team on Saturday afternoon due to a personal matter and the club signed Drew Kaser as an insurance policy, but LaFleur said the team knew later that night Scott would be able to play. Scott flew down privately Sunday morning and had three punts for 117 yards for a 39-yard average.

The Colts had a dangerous return man in Nyheim Hines to consider, so the Packers erred on the side of caution with high, short punts that gave the Colts’ decent field position to work with after his kicks.

And, Ventrone’s group maybe forced LaFleur and Mennenga’s hand on a punt, also. Near the end of the third quarter when the Colts clawed their way back to 28-25 and held the offense to just six plays, the Packers were facing a fourth-and-1 from their own 31. With momentum slipping, Ventrone’s group looked as if they were prepared for a fake as he huddled them up for a long time before taking the field.

They were bouncing around the line of scrimmage before the kick, and they got Packers linebacker Randy Ramsey to jump. The Colts punt return group celebrated as now the Packers were faced with a fourth-and-6 and Scott had to kick from his own 26 with eight seconds left in the quarter.

It was just a 38-yard punt and didn’t flip the field, and Colts were able to turn a drive starting from their 36 into a field goal that tied the game 28-28.

That punt just so happened to precede the Shepherd fumble.

“Yeah, it turned quickly,” LaFleur said of the game’s momentum. “I think they started the second half with a 7½-minute drive and then we went three and out. And then they went down and had another long drive and scored a touchdown and then we went three and out again.

“You know, it was the tale of two halves. I thought the first half was; there was lot of great complementary football, the second half was the exact opposite. And we got beat in every phase. Obviously the kickoff return that; where we fumbled the football was a big point in the game as well and you just can’t do that stuff against a good team.”