Under Bubba Ventrone’s watch, Colts’ special teams are . . . special

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Members of the Indianapolis Colts special teams celebrate a touchdown after blocking a punt by the Tennessee Titans during the second half of a game at Nissan Stadium on November 12, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – When it comes to one of those teaching moments in the Indianapolis Colts’ special teams room, Zaire Franklin knows what’s coming.

It’s another video clip from Bubba Ventrone’s personal collection.

Ventrone is in his third season as coordinator of the third prong of the team’s game-day operation – you know, offense, defense, special teams – and also is the voice of experience. His NFL resume includes 97 games with New England, Cleveland and the San Francisco 49ers, primarily as a special teams whiz.

For those who need proof of Ventrone’s expertise, it frequently jumps off the screen during preparation for an upcoming opponent.

“Man, Bubba shows us a clip of him playing every opportunity he gets,’’ Franklin said with a laugh on a Tuesday Zoom conference call. “He’s got a lot of great film over the years.’’

There might be a snippet of Ventrone, a defensive back by trade, shedding a blocker in punt coverage and making a tackle with the 49ers. In 2013, he didn’t have one defensive snap but was on the field for 65% of the special teams plays.

Defensive back Raymond Ventrone #41 of the San Francisco 49ers walks on the sideline during the 2014 NFC Championship against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on January 19, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

And, as Franklin noted, there was the time Ventrone shared with his captive audience, “ . . . when I was blocking for Josh Cribbs in Cleveland.’’

“He’s got a lot of great tape,’’ he said. “It’s crazy because I’m not mad at him. I’d do the same thing. If I’m coaching linebackers, believe I’m pulling my film out every time.

“I just think that’s an advantage that we have as a unit to have a coordinator working closely with us who’s been an impact player on special teams in all four phases of the kicking game.’’

Coach Frank Reich agreed. He’s seen and benefitted from Ventrone’s handiwork on a weekly basis.

“First of all, Bubba does a phenomenal job,’’ Reich said. “I can’t imagine a better special teams coach.’’

Maybe it’s backup linebacker E.J. Speed smothering a third-quarter punt at Tennessee and backup cornerback T.J. Carrie returning it 6 yards for a touchdown that pushed the Colts’ 20-17 lead to 27-17.

Maybe it’s rookie cornerback Isaiah Rodgers returning a kickoff 101 yards for a TD at Cleveland. He ranks 2nd in the league with a 29.8 average.

Maybe it’s rookie linebacker Jordan Glasgow deflecting a first-quarter punt at Chicago that gave the offense good field position and led to Philip Rivers’ 13-yard touchdown pass to Mo Alie-Cox.

Maybe it’s backup safety George Odom downing a Rigoberto Sanchez punt against Minnesota at the 2-yard line. Three plays later, DeForest Buckner bear-hugged Kirk Cousins in the end zone for a safety. A week later, Sanchez pinned the New York Jets inside their own 10, leading to another safety, this one from Justin Houston.

Maybe it’s kicker Rodrigo Blankenship succeeding Adam Vinatieri and immediately establishing himself as one of the league’s more reliable kickers. The undrafted rookie out of Georgia has converted 19-of-21 field goals and 23-of-25 PATs and ranks 8th in the league with 80 points.

Maybe it’s Sanchez further entrenching himself as one of the NFL’s premier situational punters. Half of his 24 punts have been downed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, including three inside the 10 against the Jets.

Maybe it’s the punt coverage unit allowing just 5.2 yards per return, 6th-best in the league. Kickoff coverage ranks 13th in average return allowed (21.5 yards), but is 7th in the average drive-start by the opposition (24-yard line) as Ventrone frequently has Sanchez kick short to force a return so the coverage can pin a team deeper than the 25.

Monday night, Chicago’s Cordarrelle Paterson returned a kickoff 104 yards for a touchdown against Minnesota, an NFL record-tying eighth in his career. He’s the league’s top kick returner but was limited to 65 yards on three returns in the week 4 meeting with the Colts.

Whatever Ventrone’s selling in special teams meetings and regardless his teaching methods, the results are undeniable. They transfer from the meeting room to the practice field to game day.

“He personally has so much juice about practicing and playing. It’s infectious,’’ Reich said. “He could still go out there and do it. When he gets in a special teams meeting, I really don’t think he has to sell anything. I think he is the product.

“I think the guys see that and believe that and believe in Bubba and Franky (Ross, special teams assistant) and the schemes and the way we’re teaching things.’’

Recently, a veteran player approached Ventrone and asked for a role on special teams.

Hey, I want to play on this unit. Please put me on this unit.

“I appreciate the fact that our players are wanting to play on those units, and Bubba does a great job of teaching them,’’ Reich said.

Core special teams players are backups who yearn to contribute in anyway possible.

Speed and Glasgow have yet to take one defensive snap this season, but Glasgow has been on the field for 72% of the special teams’ snaps and Speed for 45%. Glasgow’s impact isn’t a surprise. General manager Chris Ballard projected the sixth-round pick out of Michigan being a special teams standout as a rookie.

Odom is in his third season and has appeared in 41 games with three starts, including the 2019 week 5 upset of the Chiefs in Kansas City. This year? Sixteen scattered defensive snaps, but 188 on special teams (79%), second only to Franklin’s 192. He’s generated a team-high 10 tackles, ahead of Glasgow (six) and Franklin (four).

And then there’s Carrie, one of Ballard’s offseason free-agent acquisitions. He’s appeared in 100 games with 53 starts during his seven-year career and remains a factor on defense. He’s been on the field for 164 (29%) defensive snaps and made the most of them with two interceptions – he returned one 47 yards for a touchdown against the New York Jets – and six passes defensed.

But Carrie also has been involved in 54% of the special teams plays, perhaps none bigger than scooping up Speed’s blocked punt and returning it for a TD.

“Those are game-changers, man,’’ Carrie said. “I think that was one of the biggest things that changed the game.’’

And that’s what it’s all about: doing whatever it takes.

“It’s really just understanding that there’s so many antics and ways that you can be a difference-maker in the game, right?’’ he said. “Special teams is its own game-changer. There’s a lot of instances where you can make big plays.’’

Contributing on special teams, Carrie added, is “something I’ve just prided myself on, always being able to be coachable and be willing to understand the role I’m in and making sure when I take that role that I do it to the best of my ability.

“This is still a team game and those things are needed in order for you to go the distance in this league.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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