INDIANAPOLIS — The evolution of Indianapolis Colts punter Rigoberto Sanchez was most evident on Sunday, when the fourth-year specialist had three high punts downed inside the 10-yard line.
The 26-year-old Sanchez has pinned opponents inside the 20 on four-of-six punts this season. And his excellent hang time has translated to a 43.7-yard net average in three games. It’s early yet, but Sanchez’s previous best was a 43.1-yard net average as a rookie.
The Colts (2-1), who visit the Chicago Bears (3-0) on Sunday, like what they’ve seen from their punter, who signed a four-year, $11.6-million extension before last season.
Although rookie kicker Rodrigo Blankenship missed a 41-yard field-goal attempt off the right upright in Sunday’s 36-7 home win over the New York Jets, the Colts see the newcomer making progress as well. The 23-year-old kicker has hit eight-of-10 field-goal attempts, the other miss in Week 1 at Jacksonville, where he hit the left upright from 30 yards out.
He’s made all eight PATs and his 32 points are tied for second in the NFL.
Special teams coach Bubba Ventrone and head coach Frank Reich were asked for their assessments of the specialists this week.
“To your first question, ‘Rigo’ has done a tremendous job the last three years with us and his development,” Ventrone said. “He’s done a good job of playing the situations in the game, and he’s worked extremely hard at those plus-50 balls and the placement. It’s showing up in game situations where we’re able to pins teams back and give our defense a good-drive starting position for our defense to work with.”
Reich gushed about Sanchez’s effort against the Jets, as well as how the punter practiced in the days leading up to the game.
“‘Rigo’ was really top-notch,” Reich said. “He’s been that way. It’s funny, this week in practice, he had an unbelievable week at practice. ‘As a punter, what does that look like?’ When you see what he is doing at practice, it was phenomenal. The way he is hitting the ball, how accurate he is, how explosive his leg is. He can put it anywhere he wants to. He’s just really talented. He’s just so talented. So I could not be happier. Then he is such a great teammate. That’s really good for us.”
Sanchez has also been doing some directional kickoffs just shy of the goal line to try to give coverage units a chance to pin opponents deeper. He’s still had touchbacks on 47.37 percent of his kickoffs, but Sunday’s Jets gave showed another way to use his leg to an advantage.
On the opening kickoff, Sanchez booted the ball high to the 2-yard line and it was returned 19 yards. After an early pick-six, his next high kickoff came down at the 3-yard line, and the return was just 9 yards.
Blankenship, who won a preseason kicking competition against second-year pro Chase McLaughlin, was signed to a $20,000 signing bonus because general manager Chris Ballard liked what he saw from the Lou Groza Award winner from Georgia. Ballard reiterated he saw something special in Blankenship when explaining why he went with the rookie after training camp.
While the expectation is perfection on any kick, Reich and Ventrone said they see positives in how Blankenship has handled his NFL debut.
“As far as ‘Rod’ and kicking eight-out-of-10 with a couple off the upright, you’re right, perfection is the standard, that’s always what you want,” Reich said. “You’re not happy with any miss, but you realize he’s making good progress. I feel good about his development and we want to make every kick, so we’ll keep striving to do that.”
Ventrone said missed field goals are part of the game. The Colts know that all too well after last season, when they missed 15, including a league-high six extra points. Future Hall of Famer Adam Vinatieri was placed on injured reserve after 12 games with a leg injury that required surgery.
“There are going to be times where you have hiccups in a game or in practice, whatever it may be, and it’s how fast you can self-correct and then apply it to the next rep,” Ventrone said of Blankenship. “I think he did a good job in this past game of – OK, he had the one PAT hit the upright. We obviously had the miss – I think two kicks later, hit the upright. He didn’t do a good job of getting through the ball on those kicks. Obviously, you can see that when you’re watching the film.
“But for him to be able to make the correction and then he comes out in the second half and hits all three or four of his kicks, whatever it was, it’s a testament to him to be able to self-correct, apply and then we didn’t obviously have any more misses after that. Look, he’s a rookie, and every kicker misses kicks. If you were watching Kansas City game (Monday), after making three kicks over 50-plus yards the previous week in critical situations, their kicker misses a PAT and he misses a shorter field goal. It’s the nature of the beast, the nature of the game. It’s how fast you can apply the corrections and self-diagnose within the game, within the situation.”
(Phillip B. Wilson has covered the Indianapolis Colts for more than two decades and authored the 2013 book 100 Things Colts Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. He’s on Twitter @pwilson24, on Facebook at @allcoltswithphilb and @100thingscoltsfans, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.)