INDIANAPOLIS – This isn’t new to Philip Rivers, where one of his most trusted weapons is a punter.
Yes, a punter.
Now, in his first season with the Indianapolis Colts, it’s Rigoberto Sanchez.
But for so much of career with the San Diego Chargers, it was Mike Scifres.
That’s a name that probably still elicits angry glares from long-time Colts’ fans. We’ll get to that in a bit.
But first, there was that time in 2006 when Rivers, the Chargers’ young QB1, was informed his punter was a “specialist’’ who did much more than simply trot out onto the field four or five times a game when the offense was unable to finish what it started.
Credit Chargers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, the former Indiana University head coach and Terre Haute South standout, for educating Rivers.
“Cam Cameron would say to me when it was my first year getting going, first couple years as a starter, ‘Our punter is a weapon. Our punter is an offensive weapon,’’’ Rivers shared Wednesday on a Zoom conference call. “I remember thinking that sounded crazy, but Mike Scifres, long-time punter there, was unbelievable punting the football, both for distance but also inside the 10 inside the 20.’’
That brings us to the game Scifres almost single-handedly won.
It was Jan. 3, 2009, an AFC wild-card game pitting the Colts (12-4) against the Rivers-led Chargers (8-8) in San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium.
Rivers did his part (20-of-36, 217 yards) as did running back Darren Sproles (22 rushes, 105 yards) and tight end Antonio Gates (eight catches, 87 yards).
But the game’s unquestioned MVP? Mike Scifres, who punted six times. Not only did he drop all six inside the 20, he had four downed inside the 11-yard line. One was at the 1, another at the 3, yet another at the 7. He had a ridiculous 51.7 net in the game.
Scifres’ sixth punt came from his own 47 with 2:50 remaining and the Colts holding a 17-14 lead. It squirted out of bounds at the 1. When Peyton Manning was unable to move the chains – a third-down sack was the killer – the Chargers took advantage of choice field position – first-and-10 at the Indy 38 following Hunter Smith’s 63-yard punt and Sproles’ 36-yard return – to tie the game on Nate Kaeding’s 26-yard field goal with 31 seconds remaining.
The Chargers won it 23-17 in overtime.
Sanchez hasn’t duplicated Scifres’ rare dominance, but there’s no denying the impact he’s had on the Colts’ 2-1 start.
“He’s been awesome,’’ Rivers said. “And yes, we prefer never punt, but . . . it’s the other old saying, ‘End every possession with a kick. Either it be a field goal, a PAT or punt.
“Certainly been awesome in the punt game. Rigo’s been great.’’
To be accurate, Sanchez has been great for two games. He wasn’t called on to punt in the season-opening loss at Jacksonville.
But in the last two weeks, he’s been that weapon Rivers had with Scifres.
Sanchez doesn’t appear in the league stats because his six attempts don’t meet the minimum standard, but that doesn’t dismiss the footprint he’s left.
While the bottom line reveals four of his six punts have been downed or been fair catches inside the 20, they’ve actually all occurred inside the 9: two at the 8, one at the 3 and another at the 2.
The direct impact: 11 points.
Three plays after longsnapper Luke Rhodes downed a Sanchez punt against Minnesota at the 2, DeForest Buckner bear-hugged Kirk Cousins in the end zone for a safety. Last Sunday against the New York Jets, Chris Hogan had to fair catch a high, floating 50-yard Sanchez punt at the 4. Three plays later, Justin Houston got to Sam Darnold for another safety.
In the third quarter Sunday, a Sanchez punt pinned the Jets at their own 8. The defense forced a three-and-out, the offense set up shop at the New York 45 and Rivers used the short field to drive the Colts to Jonathan Taylor’s 1-yard touchdown. That pushed a 17-7 lead to 24-7.
Sanchez’s situational expertise has resulted in zero return yards through three games. Dallas is the only other team yet to yield any return yards on punts.
Sanchez’s influence also is being felt on kickoffs. Special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone is maximizing his kicker’s skills by frequently having him deliver the ball short of the goal line, forcing a return and allowing the coverage unit to converge on the returner.
“Playing fast and aggressive to the point,’’ Ventrone said.
That approach has resulted in Sanchez and special teams routinely giving the Colts advantageous field position at the start of drives. The average start for opponents following a kickoff is the 23.3-yard line. That’s the third-best in the league. The Colts’ average drive start is the 28.3-yard line, fourth-best.
Taking Sanchez’s punts and kickoffs into account, the Colts have enjoyed a decided edge in average drive start. They were a plus-16 against the Jets and a plus-25 against the Vikings (45-yard line for the Colts, 20 for the Vikings).
Sunday’s visit to Chicago’s Soldier Field figures to test Sanchez and Ventrone’s coverage units. The Bears feature Cordarrelle Patterson, one of the NFL’s premier kick returners. He ranks third in the NFL this season with a 31.6 average, has averaged 30.0 on 213 career returns and has returned seven for TDs.
“We have to play with discipline,’’ Ventrone said. “We’ll see how good we can respond. I think our guys are excited for the challenge and I think Rigo is, too.’’
Frank Reich described Patterson as “the best in the league.’’
“He’s an aggressive returner,’’ he said. “He’ll bring it out from anywhere. A lot of guys in this league if the ball’s kicked into the end zone are given the instructions to stay in there. But he’s given the freedom to take anything out at any time.
“He’s been consistently one of the best, so it’s a really good challenge for our special teams.’’
“We feel Rigo is equally a great weapon for us,’’ he said. “We’ve felt that way from the beginning. He’s been outstanding this year.
“So talented and you can’t ever underestimate how important that plays into a game.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.