Special Teams: Battle of Mediocrity

Remember Desmond Howard's touchdown return in Super Bowl XXXI? Don't expect a repeat in Super Bowl XLV. Then again, Pittsburgh's special teams haven't been a deciding factor this season, either. In fact, the Steelers are using Packers castoff Jeremy Kapinos as their punter.

For week after week after week, the Green Bay Packers faced a gauntlet of dangerous kickoff and punt returners. Last week, it was Devin Hester. The week before, Eric Weems. Before that, DeSean Jackson.

And that's just the playoffs.

In the Super Bowl, however, coordinator Shawn Slocum's units will be on an even footing with the Pittsburgh Steelers special teams led by Al Everest.

Outside of first-year punter Tim Masthay's performance down the stretch, the Packers haven't had much to hang their hat on this season from their kicking and return units. They've settled on Tramon Williams' sure-handed approach on punts, but he's been brilliant compared to the ineptitude shown on kickoff returns.

The Steelers, however, haven't lit the world on fire, either. The reliable Jeff Reed was horrific to start the season, so Shaun Suisham was picked up off the scrap heap. Daniel Sepulveda was an up-and-comer at punter but he's out with a torn ACL, with Pittsburgh settling on Packers castoff Jeremy Kapinos down the stretch.

Suisham has been a find, with his 14-of-15 accuracy a far cry from his career mark of 79.1 percent entering this season. However, he missed from 43 yards against Baltimore in the divisional round and hasn't hit a field goal of longer than 48 yards since 2008.

In four regular-season games, Kapinos punted 14 times with a 41.1-yard average and a net of 32.3. Just like in Green Bay, opponents are getting too many opportunities for runbacks, with seven allowed for 84 yards. In Green Bay last year, a whopping 40-of-66 punts were returned.

By contrast, Masthay has allowed 31 returns on 71 punts. On Sunday, Masthay tied a team playoff record with five punts downed inside the 20-yard line. His 25 inside-the-20s this season were the most by a Packers punter since 2002 and his 39.9-yard net average in the final nine games ranked third in the NFL.

"One of the things we talked about was that it's his job to keep the effectiveness of the returner under control, and I think as the season went on, I thought he got better and better with that," Slocum said on Wednesday. "I think it's evident with how we played against Chicago and how he performed against Chicago with 16 punts in two ballgames with the effectiveness of Hester."

The one area where the Packers must be wary is kickoff coverage. Pittsburgh's Emmanuel Sanders averaged 25.1 yards per return, which ranks 12th among players with at least 16 returns this season. The Packers' kickoff coverage, of course, has been a huge trouble spot, whether it was Weems' touchdown in the playoff game or Dan Connolly's embarrassing rumble at New England. At Chicago last week, Slocum basically surrendered field position with popup kicks. So, while Chicago averaged just 15.8 yards per kickoff return, it started at its 38-yard line on four kickoffs.

Meanwhile, Green Bay's kickoff return reminds absolutely nobody of Desmond Howard's heroics in Super Bowl XXXI. Running back James Starks, who muffed a kickoff out of bounds at Atlanta, averaged 15.0 yards on his two opportunities at Chicago. With this game being on turf, Slocum probably will go back to rookie Sam Shields, who has blinding speed but averaged a meager 21.5 yards on his 21 opportunities.

"Sam prepares every week to be one of our kickoff returners," Slocum said. "Here recently we've gone with James. Part of that was because of the weather and we wanted a big body catching the ball and getting north and south. But Sam is very much a part of our return game. He's an explosive player and he is getting better. I think he improves all the time. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see him catch a ball and return it for a touchdown. That's been the history here. I'd love to see it in a game."

Rankings in the core units

Kickoff returns: Green Bay, 26th (20.1 average). Pittsburgh, 13th (23.5 average).

Punt returns: Green Bay, 22nd (7.9 average). Pittsburgh, 32nd (6.1).

Kickoff coverage: Green Bay, 12th (21.8 average). Pittsburgh, fifth (20.0).

Punting: Green Bay, 16th (37.6 net average). Pittsburgh, 17th (37.3 net average).


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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