Special Teams Become Heavyweight Battle

The Packers' special teams used to be a laughingstock around the league. That would have spelled doom considering this season starts out with games against four of the top eight units from last year. The Packers, slouches no longer, have won the battle the first two weeks.

After three consecutive seasons languishing near the bottom of the Dallas Morning News' annual special teams rankings, the Green Bay Packers made a big jump last season.

When the Packers won the Super Bowl, they checked in at No. 29 in writer Rick Gosselin's breakdown of 22 statistical categories. Last season, the Packers surged to 13th.

If the Packers' special teams are to be considered elite, these first four games will be defining. San Francisco was No. 1 in Gosselin's compilation, followed by Chicago at No. 3, Seattle at No. 7 and New Orleans at No. 8.

"It seems like it's a challenge every week," said Ryan Taylor, one of the team's core special teams players. "We've played three of the top special teams in the league the first three weeks. I think we've risen to the occasion every time."

It's only two games, but the results have been encouraging. Against the 49ers, the Packers dominated the net punting battle behind Randall Cobb's touchdown. On kickoffs, the teams battled to a draw. Against the Bears, Tim Masthay threw a touchdown pass on a fake field goal and won the net punting battle by holding Devin Hester to 8 return yards on five punts.

It's a far cry from the bad old days. In 2009, for instance, the Packers were last in the league in inside-the-20 punts and penalties and 31st in net punting. In 2010, they ranked 22nd in punt returns, 23rd in field goal percentage and 31st in opponent starting point following a kickoff.

"We changed a number of things about three years back as far as our playbook, our approach, our philosophy," coach Mike McCarthy said. "Shawn (Slocum) and I had a chance to sit down in one offseason and just kind of change a number of things the way we go about it. And Shawn Slocum and Chad Morton have done a great job coaching that group and it's been fun to watch them grow. And I clearly think it's going to be our best year in my time here."

Slocum didn't think the changes were anything magical.

"It's just play style. Finish and physicality is something that we really emphasize," he said. "Playing at a top speed all the time and not in spurts is something that's really important. If you're trying to gain an advantage over your opponent, if our play speed is greater than theirs, I believe it gives you an advantage."

McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson have worked to upgrade the talent. Almost all personnel decisions, especially with the draft and rookie free agents, have an eye toward special teams. Cobb, the second-round pick in 2011, has added an explosive element that the return units had lacked for years.

But it goes far beyond Cobb.

A team loaded with tight ends used a seventh-round pick on Taylor in 2011 because of his special teams history at North Carolina. Special teams might be a young man's game, but the leading tacklers are veterans: Jarrett Bush, who's been re-signed twice because of his special teams play, Robert Francois and John Kuhn have two apiece.

The switch to the 3-4 scheme in 2009 meant more linebackers, resulting in more big, athletic guys used to playing in space earning roster spots. Veteran Brad Jones was the team's third-leading special teams tackler last season. For all of his promise on defense, undrafted rookie Dezman Moses was an immediate standout on special teams. Second-year player Jamari Lattimore and fifth-round pick Terrell Manning made the team largely because of special teams.

Plus, kicker Mason Crosby and punter Tim Masthay have blossomed into one of the best kicking duos in the league. Crosby, coming off a career-best 24-of-28 on field goals, has made all three attempts this season. Masthay, coming off a season in which he set franchise records for gross and net average, leads the league with seven punts placed inside the 20-yard line and ranks second with a return percentage of just 27.3 percent (three returns out of 11 punts).

So, instead of asking Slocum every week about the challenge this week's opponent poses, perhaps it's time to recognize the challenges the Packers pose. Maybe it's time to consider the Packers' special teams among the league's best.

"At the end of this year, we'll see how we fit," Slocum said, refusing to jump the gun for the sake of an attention-grabbing quote. "I think the guys that we have, the personnel is such that we ought to be really good. We ought to be very competitive. Our specialists are performing at a high level and I think we've got a good group of guys for coverage units as well as blockers."

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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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