No Bears draft pick has evolved more in the last couple of years than punter Pat O’Donnell, and it just might make him a part of the team’s future.
O’Donnell has transformed his kicking style since the Bears drafted him out of Miami in the sixth round in 2014, one of only 13 punters drafted since 2010.
His standing was uncertain at the start of the season when the Bears, according to a source, offered a contract to veteran Britton Colquitt after the Broncos released him Aug. 30. Colquitt had experience playing for coach John Fox and special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers, but he accepted a more lucrative deal from the Browns.
Although O’Donnell’s net average of 33.4 yards ranks last in the NFL, it doesn’t reflect the steady improvement he has made. That number is skewed by an 85-yard return for a touchdown by the Lions’ Andre Roberts.
O’Donnell was hardly to blame as the Lions went for a block, rushing 10. O’Donnell did his part in getting the kick off, but the coverage team broke down completely while officials missed what appeared to be an illegal block in the back.
The Colts’ Quan Bray broke a 20-yard return last week, but right gunner Sherrick McManis took a poor angle and the coverage team was outflanked.
O’Donnell has gone from using spiral kicks almost exclusively to using a rugby-style kick the majority of the time. Nineteen of his 21 punts have been rugby-style, and that has helped him force 10 fair catches.
In a game of field position, the Bears are improving their ability to flip the field, a valuable tool for a defense that lacks a consistent pass rush.
“He has a better grasp of the situations and what we’re trying to accomplish,” Rodgers said, “from minus-50 punts on our side of the field, where maybe we’re trying to change field position, to plus-50 punts where you’re just trying to keep the ball inside the 20. Direction, schematically what other teams are doing and how to combat that – wherever he was a year ago, he has developed pretty well in a lot of those phases.”
After the 29-23 loss in Indianapolis, Colts punter Pat McAfee knew O’Donnell’s tendencies cold. That’s a good sign if one of the league’s best punters is paying attention to a relative newcomer.
“He’s gone to the left with every punt but two,” said McAfee, a former Pro Bowl performer. “Ninety percent. I think Pat is doing wonderful.”
O’Donnell started using more rugby-style kicks in the second half of last season. As a rookie, he used it only on the plus side of the 50 when he was trying to pin the opponent inside the 20.
The only difference with the rugby kick for O’Donnell is how high he drops the ball above his right foot. The higher he wants the kick to go (for shorter kicks), the higher he drops the ball. The more he wants to drive the ball, the lower he drops it.
Rugby-style kicks are controlled much better when they’re aimed left because of the leg swing needed, and that’s why the Bears have gone in that direction so often. Repeating the same kick with at least similar coverage tactics should make the Bears better.
Rugby kicks are more difficult for returners to catch, a big reason they’re becoming more popular around the league. The Seahawks’ Jon Ryan punted left the majority of the time in 2013, when they entered the final game having allowed only 25 return yards. In the final week, the Rams prevented them from breaking the NFL record of 48 set by the Falcons in 2008.
“That flip-flop (kick) eliminates returns, or it’s supposed to,” McAfee said Sunday. “Today, we popped off a big one (Bray’s 20-yard return). If you hang it high, you get a chance to get your coverage down there, and it’s a tough ball to catch. You hope they go fair catch with it.
“Everybody pooches with it normally. When Jon Ryan had his great year, they had their fast guys go cover it, and he’d hit like 40 yards, 41 yards. No return. Pat’s kind of doing the same thing.”
O’Donnell saw the Bears’ all-time leading scorer, kicker Robbie Gould, get released before the season, so he knows maybe more than ever he needs to perform.
“Everything is week to week in this league,” O’Donnell said. “I don’t feel any pressure or anything like that. Go out there every Sunday and have fun, kick good punts.”