Camp Preview: 'Special' Teams

With the lockout inching ever-so-slowly toward a conclusion, we continue our positional series. Here's all you need to know about the Packers' special teams: A 313-pound lineman had a longer kickoff return than anything by the Packers last season.

Bad.

That's the short-and-sweet — OK, not-so-sweet — way to describe the Green Bay Packers' special teams.

Mason Crosby remains a below-average kicker in terms of accuracy on field goals.

Tim Masthay ranked in the middle of the pack among punters.

Four players returned kickoffs but none of them did it at an acceptable level. Not that the blocking helped.

Tramon Williams returned punts. The best thing you can say about the results was at least he didn't get injured.

Really, nothing more needs to be said than this: The longest kickoff return by Green Bay last season was Jordy Nelson's 51-yard runback in the opener against Philadelphia. New England's Dan Connolly — a 313-pound offensive lineman — had a 71-yard return against the Packers.

OK, if you're a glutton for punishment, how's this for added insult: The Packers haven't had a return that long since Robert Ferguson's 71-yard runback in ... 2004.

Maybe "bad" doesn't begin to tell the story.

There are some reasons for hope, though, if you're special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum.

— Chances are, the Packers won't have to endure such a plague of injuries again. With some continuity on the roster, the return and coverage units should have improved continuity, as well.

— Masthay's numbers sat squarely in the middle of the pack, but once he overcame some early-season troubles, he performed like the answer to the Packers' lengthy punting troubles. While his season-long net average was a meager 34.7 yards, he topped that number in nine of the final 10 regular-season games. After six games, Masthay had just six inside-the-20 punts with two touchbacks. In the final 10 games, he put 19 punts inside the 20 with three touchbacks.

When the Packers needed him in a defensive struggle against the Jets and two January games against Chicago's dangerous Devin Hester, Masthay delivered three of his finest performances.

— For the fourth time in as many seasons, Crosby failed to convert 80 percent of his field goal attempts. However, because of the revolving door at punter, he's battled a revolving door with his holders, too. With Masthay returning, Crosby hopefully will be able to pick up where he left off last season, when he made 9-of-10 kicks to end the regular season. Crosby will be an unrestricted free agent when the collective bargaining agreement is agreed upon. Based on the Packers' decision to not draft a kicker and a weak class of free agents, re-signing Crosby appears to be a priority.

— Showing more commitment to special teams than usual, the Packers invested a second-round pick in Randall Cobb, who was an excellent kickoff and punt returner at Kentucky, and a third-round pick in Alex Green, who didn't return kicks at Hawaii but is an option on kickoffs, according to Slocum.

"I think these returners have a chance to really impact the game," Slocum told Packer Report during one of our lockout exclusives, putting the onus on the returners rather than the blockers to provide better field position. "Playing good special teams statistically, there are a couple key components. No. 1, the guys that can affect the field position the quickest are the returner, the punter and the kicker. The returner, he can make a poor block look good. He can affect the field position dramatically. Look at the things Hester does. When he makes impactful returns, they're a better football team and they win more games."

— They used a seventh-round pick on Ryan Taylor, who was North Carolina's three-time special teams player of the year. The hope is Taylor will join Jarrett Bush in giving the Packers two hard-nosed difference-makers.

— Slocum isn't popular among the fans but the players did respond to his coaching. The penalty total went from 32 in 17 games in 2009 to 22 in 20 games in 2010.

— Along with last year's coaches — Slocum and assistant Chad Morton — a third coach was added, with John Rushing to split his time between receivers and special teams.


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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.


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