Spec. Teams: Better Than You Think, Improving

Believe it or not, one of the most important statistical measuring sticks shows the Packers' special teams were an asset last season. That's the good news, and it gets even better considering what they showed in Saturday's preseason opener.


That's the Green Bay Packers' abysmal ranking in last season's Dallas Morning News special teams rankings, in which writer Rick Gosselin puts together every team's ranking in 22 categories to churn out one composite ranking.

So, this statistic is guaranteed to surprise you: In the 16 regular-season games last season, Shawn Slocum's special teams won the "hidden yardage" battle 10 times.

You read that correctly.

In computing field position gained and lost on kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts and punt returns, the Packers came out on top of their opponent in 10 of the 16 games. That means Slocum's units, more often than not, did what they needed to do: They put the offense and defense in better positions to succeed than did their opponents.

"These games are so close that that hidden yardage is such a factor to create scoring probability in your favor, to create a positive field position," Slocum told Packer Report last week. "If you get the ball toward midfield, you've got a lot greater chance to score than at the 20."

That's not to say the Packers' special teams played winning football last season. Slocum's the first to admit that his units must play better. On that note, Saturday's preseason game at Cleveland was a step in the right direction.

Punting was a virtual standoff, with Tim Masthay's net average of 40.2 yards on five punts being shaded by the Browns' Richmond McGee's three-punt net average of 40.3

However, kickoffs and kickoff returns — two areas where the Packers were mostly horrific last season — got off to a promising start against Cleveland's typically superb units. Green Bay's average starting point on six kickoffs was the 22.3-yard line. That doesn't sound great, but on the two kickoffs returned by second-round pick Randall Cobb, Green Bay took the ball on its 28- and 27-yard lines. By contrast, the Browns took the ball on the 16.5-yard line on Green Bay's four kickoffs. With Mason Crosby booming his kickoffs an average of 6.8 yards deep into the end zone, the Browns' best starting field position was the 21-yard line.

"I was able to go after it and kick," said Crosby, whose leg looked strong after missing a week with a sprained ankle on his plant (left) leg. "Kickoffs, I was hitting ‘em 8, 9 (yards) deep, and I wasn't really trying to mash ‘em. It's a positive in my mind, that once this heel/ankle thing is feeling better – I wouldn't say it's 100 percent yet."

Crosby and Masthay are two of the major reasons to believe the Packers' special teams could go from weakness to strength.

Crosby should be one of the major beneficiaries with kickoffs at the 35-yard line instead of the 30. Last year, because of injuries leading to a porous coverage unit. Crosby kicked just four touchbacks after averaging 14.3 in his first three seasons. This year, his goal is 50 percent touchbacks — which would mean about 45 over the course of the season.

Masthay was statistically a middle-of-the-pack punter last season but his net average of 39.8 yards over the final 10 regular-season games would have ranked fourth in the NFL had he performed like that for a full season. His 2011 season got off to a rousing start by bombing punts of 60, 45, 59 and 58 yards. His final punt went 39 yards and pinned the Browns at their 3-yard line.

Throw in a draft that provided a legitimate returner in Cobb — not to mention the No. 1 kickoff returner on the depth chart, third-rounder Alex Green, and three-time North Carolina special teams player of the year Ryan Taylor — and Slocum has some dynamic talent at his disposal.

"I like this group," Slocum said. "We've got the challenge of putting it together and getting in sync as a group. These preseason games will be important. We've got a good group of returners and core guys. I thought that our draft was important with that and we added some guys who are going to be able to help us."

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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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