"We're actually working pretty hard," Green Bay Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum told Packer Report on Friday. "We're just ahead of the curve a little bit in terms of preparing for training camp. We've had a lot of extra time to really evaluate what we're doing and what some other people are doing. It's actually been good."
At the owners meetings two months ago, the league passed changes that moved the kickoff from the 30-yard line to the 35 and forbid members of the coverage unit from lining up more than 5 yards behind the ball to minimize the 10- or 15-yard running starts that helped lead to violent collisions.
Slocum pointed out the obvious — there would be more touchbacks since kickers will be kicking the ball 5 yards closer to the goal line, though the impact might be minimized at Lambeau Field because of the wind and late-season cold. He also mentioned some not-so-obvious differences that should help the return units.
"Putting the players 5 yards from the restraining line will simplify the get-off process," Slocum said in his first public comments about the changes. "A lot of people (on kickoff coverage) — we've even done it — you come out of a cluster or you exchange guys' lanes as they get off. You'll see less of that because there's less room. Before, you could line up 20 yards deep and get a 20-yard head-start. As far as velocity down the field, these guys take off so fast that I don't think it's going to have a great impact on how fast they're running down the field, because they get to top-end speed quick."
According to Slocum, the average kickoff league-wide last year traveled to the 5.5-yard line. Common sense would suggest that, with the new rule, the average kickoff would travel to the half-yard line. That, however, might not be the case.
The perfect example would be with how Slocum schemed with kicker Mason Crosby last year. Saddled with a revolving door on his kickoff coverage unit because of a litany of injuries, Slocum tried to mask those deficiencies rather than just letting him bomb away toward the end zone.
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"We tried to manipulate the ball a lot last year in terms of putting the ball on a specific point on the field, kicking with great hang time, hitting that hook shot down there that looks like a squib," Slocum said. "It was all about disrupting the rhythm and timing of the return. Our average starting point for opponents was not near what we want — the 29-yard line. The average kickoff return against us, we were 13th in the league (21.8-yard average). I think the starting point to me is very important and I would like to kick the ball deeper and try to move that starting point back 5 yards or 4 yards."
Slocum didn't dispute that Crosby could be the big winner with the rules changes. Because he was asked to do so much situational kicking last year, he kicked just four touchbacks. That's down from the 14.3-touchbacks average from his first three seasons.
However, playing in Lambeau might mitigate some of that advantage, he said. Slocum pointed to Dallas' David Buehler as an example. In two seasons, Buehler has recorded 51 touchbacks (32.1 percent) and his average kickoff went to the 3.5-yard line. In three kickoffs at Lambeau Field (one in 2009 and two in 2010), he had no touchbacks and the ball averaged the 8.7-yard line.
Crosby, despite one of the biggest legs in the league, ranked just 27th in average kickoff distance (8.4-yard line).
"Mason can kick the ball deep. He's got a big leg," Slocum said. "But you look at some of these kickers that come in here, there are guys that kick a lot of touchbacks but they can't because the wind conditions at Lambeau are crazy. I've seen Mason hit a great ball that comes down at the 10-yard line but on a different day it might be 5 or 6 yards deep (in the end zone). The way the boxes are and the way the wind comes in — I've walked in from the parking lot on gameday and you go, ‘OK, it's pretty good. We won't have to worry about the wind very much.' Then you get out there and it's just killing the ball, it's knocking it down. It's strange sometimes."
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