Special Teams Go From Weakness To Strength

Mike McCarthy could have fired Shawn Slocum, but his patience has been rewarded. The kicking units are a winning factor, as illustrated by these five core statistical measuring sticks. The Packers have gone from the bottom one-third of the league in those stats to the top one-third.

Even while winning the Super Bowl, the Green Bay Packers finished a woeful 29th in the Dallas Morning News special teams rankings, with writer Rick Gosselin giving one point for first place and 32 points for last place in each of 22 kicking categories.

It was the continuation of a horrendous trend. In 2009, Shawn Slocum's first year as special teams coordinator, the Packers finished a dreadful 31st. In 2008, when Slocum was an assistant under Mike Stock, the Packers finished 26th.

"I don't think as a coach you can worry about job security or your future," Slocum told Packer Report on Thursday when asked if he feared for his job after last season. "I think that would be a negative mind-set. It's about improving, and part of coaching and playing this game, it's about overcoming adversity. That's the way I look at things. If you think you're going to go out and everything's going to be perfect all the time, it's not going to be that way. It's important to try to overcome the things that you're short on and continue to do the things you do well and make the big picture better."

The big picture has been much, much better this season.

Last year, the Packers won in spite of their special teams. This year, while it's safe to say they're winning because of the offense, the special teams have provided a dramatic positive impact. That's evident in examining five key special teams components: Starting field position on kickoffs and kickoff returns, net punting for and against, and field goal accuracy.

Last year, the Packers' average ranking in those categories was 21.8. This year, it's 11.6. The only area in which the Packers' ranking fell was net punting, from 16th in 2010 to 19th in 2009, but punter Tim Masthay's net average went up 0.91 yards to a franchise-record 38.6. Moreover, the Packers scored touchdowns on a punt and kickoff return, their first touchdowns on special teams since Will Blackmon returned two punts for touchdowns in 2008.

"Shawn Slocum and I made a philosophy change going into last year, (and) I think you're seeing the benefits of it in Year 2," coach Mike McCarthy said on Thursday. "Everybody talks about how young we are as a football team, and no one is affected or challenged more by that than our special teams coaches. In evaluating volume of scheme versus time committed to fundamentals, different types of fundamentals we've integrated into our special teams, I think it's really helped us. We've really backed off schematically and have spent an enormous amount of time on the fundamentals of special teams, frankly, because of our inexperience. Our youngest players play on special teams primarily, and it was important to take a step back."

The young faces have made huge contributions. Second-round pick Randall Cobb, who joined Robert Brooks as the only players in franchise history with touchdowns as a receiver, kickoff returner and punt returner, finished second in the NFL in kickoff return average (27.7) and seventh in punt return average (11.3).

It's not just Cobb, though. Of the rookies, D.J. Smith tied for third on the team with 11 special-teams tackles, Ryan Taylor was fifth with 10 and M.D. Jennings was sixth with nine. Veteran cornerbacks Jarrett Bush and Pat Lee led the way with 12 apiece, and third-year linebacker Brad Jones added 11.

"It's looking at the big picture and our production to help our football team, and I think that we've been more consistent, as much as anything this year over the previous couple years," Slocum said. "We added some new guys that were hungry and eager to play. I think the guys are playing with a sense of accountability and realizing how important it is to play well, particularly on the coverage teams. That's very important. I think we've improved our punt coverage as the year's gone on and our kickoff coverage has been pretty solid."

Our five core special teams stats

Field goals

2011: 10th, 85.7 percent. 2010: 23rd, 78.6 percent.

Average starting point: Kickoff coverage

2011: 19th, 22.2-yard line. 2010: 31st, 29.8-yard line.

Average starting point: Kickoff returns

2011: seventh, 23.2-yard line. 2010: 11th, 27.6-yard line.

Net punting: Punting team

2011: 19th, 38.6 yards. 2010: 16th, 37.6 yards.

Net punting: Punt returns

2011: 3rd, 37.9 yards. 2010: 28th, 40.7 yards.

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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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