Last year, he set franchise records for punting average (45.6) and net average (38.6). His average is down to 43.1 this season but, more importantly, his net has risen to 40.0.
"I'm very pleased with how I've struck the ball all year," Masthay said as he looked ahead to another battle against Chicago's Devin Hester, who owns NFL records with 12 punt-return touchdowns and 17 touchdowns on kick returns. "It's our best year as a punt unit, too. Part of that's the punting but a punter doesn't make a great punt team. A punter is part of a great punt team but coverage and protection are just as big. There's many plays that I can pull up on film where I see J.B. (Jarrett Bush) making a great play or Davon (House) or Sam (Shields) or John Kuhn getting down and making a great play."
Masthay, however, has been the story, and here's why: By percentage, no punter in the NFL has had fewer punts returned than Masthay. Of his 59 punts, only 28.8 percent have been returned, according to league rankings compiled by ProFootballFocus.com.
"Stats can be misleading but I think they tell a general story most of the time," Masthay said. "If you have a really low opponent return average and low number of punts returned but you're netting 30 yards, that's not winning punting. That's not winning football. My goal as a punter on up-the-field punts, I want to hit — a majority of the time (because) there are different situations where different punts are desirable — but you want to hit medium-distance punts. When I say ‘medium,' I mean anywhere from 40 to 50 with good hang time, because those are the balls that net good yards and flip the field position, but they don't stress the coverage and the coverage has a good chance of making that a fair catch or tackling him right away."
Masthay is second in fair catches with 24; league-leading Dave Zastudil has 29 but on 30 more punts. Masthay has placed 28 punts inside the 20-yard line with just five touchbacks, making him one of only seven punters with at least 20 inside-the-20s to have a ratio of better than 5-to-1.
The punt coverage has been superb. Opponents are averaging just 4.9 yards per return, good for third in the league. It's been a group effort. Bush leads the way with 12 special-teams tackles, followed by Robert Francois' nine, M.D. Jennings' seven, Jamari Lattimore's six and Dezman Moses and Ryan Taylor with five apiece.
"That's production by everybody," special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. "The tackles are spread around and I think we're covering fast and that's the key. You've got to run under the ball and get there before the returner can get set up. I think we've done that for the most part. We had one return for 20 yards against San Francisco. Since that time, we've been pretty solid. It really showed up against Minnesota when D.J. Williams went down the field and made a nice open-field tackle on (Marcus) Sherels. They had a chance to get a return going and he shut it down."
Packers have Cutler's number
Since being acquired from Denver, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is 1-6 against the Packers. Chicago has scored 20 points just one time, its 20-17 win on Sept. 27, 2010, when Hester returned a punt for a touchdown and the Packers were guilty of 18 penalties.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers is taking nothing for granted. He knows Cutler's talents and he knows running back Matt Forte can dictate down-and-distance situations to put Cutler in favorable positions.
"Cutler can make all the throws," he said. "This guy, he's got the arm strength that he can put the ball any place on the field. He's a guy that when he gets hot, he gets hot. He's got a lot of confidence in (Brandon) Marshall. Obviously, when a guy has 101 catches, he's going to look to go to him a lot. Forte, out here the first game, he probably did more damage to us than anybody. When you've got a receiver, a running back and another receiver who's their return guy (Hester), you're always concerned because you don't want to give up the big play and you don't want them to get in a good rhythm. They're going to have a commitment to run the ball. We can't let them get their run game going to the point where they keep you off-balance in terms of the run-pass."
In the six regular-season games and one playoff start, Cutler has thrown seven touchdowns and 16 interceptions, completed 60 percent of his passes just once and been sacked 24 times. It's a hex Cutler must break if the Bears want to prevent the Packers from winning the NFC North title.
"They're definitely in the way," Cutler said. "They've controlled this division. We won it a couple years ago but then they came back and beat us. They've had a strong hold on this division for the last couple of years and they've had our number and this is going to be another good one."
Defense starting to take it away
Chicago's turnover-producing defense has been a big focus this week, and rightfully so, but Green Bay has picked up the pace after a slow start.
The Packers forced five turnovers in the first five games — with four of those coming against Cutler and Co. in Week 2. However, they've forced 15 during the last eight games. Not surprisingly, they've gone 7-1 in that stretch. The loss came to the Giants; the Packers didn't force a turnover in that game.
"I like the impact plays that we've been making," Capers said. "I think they've had an impact on the games. Against the Lions in the two games, we had two defensive touchdowns. I think the takeaways were extremely big in both of those games. Morgan (Burnett's) two interceptions in the Minnesota game kind of got the tide turned our way. Those are the kind of plays that you have to make and they'll be critical in this game Sunday. Chicago, their defense does a great job of taking the ball away and you don't have to look at them very long to see that when they take away the ball, they win games. When they haven't, then they've had a hard time winning games. That's the case with most people and that's the case with us."
That's true. In Green Bay's nine wins, it's forced 19 turnovers. In the four losses, it's forced just one.
For weeks, the Packers have talked about their desire to run the ball efficiently in an effort to get teams out of Cover-2. By running the ball, the theory goes, one of those two deep safeties will have to come to the line of scrimmage. That, in turn, will provide some down-the-field opportunities for Aaron Rodgers and the passing game.
That's the theory but don't count on it happening.
"I think whenever a team isn't one-dimensional, it's tougher to defend, but if they're running and not throwing to the skill guys, that ain't all bad for the opponent," Bears coach Lovie Smith said during his Wednesday conference call. "They're a dangerous team no matter how you look at it, whether they're leaning to the run or the pass."
Since Week 9, Green Bay ranks eighth in the NFL with 135.8 rushing yards per game. That has the Packers up to 18th in the league. Under McCarthy, the Packers' best marks are 14th in 2009 and 17th in 2008.
"We're just doing what we feel we need to do to be successful and the defense is going to do the same. We'll see what happens," offensive coordinator Tom Clements said when asked if he honestly thinks the Packers can run defenses out of Cover-2.
— The Bears lead the series 92-87-6 (including 1-1 in the playoffs) but that's as close as it's been in a long time, thanks to the Packers winning five in a row and seven of the last eight. Green Bay's last series lead came in 1932, 11-10-5. Chicago took command by going 16-4-1 in the 1940s and 14-5-1 in the 1950s.
— Going back to something we wrote before the 2010 NFC Championship Game, this is a strange rivalry because both teams have been good at the same time only rarely. Just four times did the teams qualify for the playoffs together: 1941, 1994, 2001 and 2010.
— In 185 matchups, the Bears have outscored the Packers 3,110-3,061 — a scant 59 points. Most of that came in 1980, when the Bears flattened the Packers 61-7. In 1962, Vince Lombardi fielded probably his best team and arguably the best team in NFL history. Green Bay crushed the Bears 49-0 for its most lopsided win in the series, then won 38-7 five weeks later. Jim Taylor rushed for 250 yards and seven touchdowns in those games.
— Last week, the Packers scored the winning touchdown on a seven-play drive that was accomplished all on running plays. That was the team's first all-handoff touchdown drive of at least seven plays since 2002, when Tony Fisher toted the ball all seven times on a 58-yard scoring drive against Chicago, according to the Elias Sports Bureau via the Packers.
— Obviously, turnovers are key, so let's look beyond Chicago's league-leading 35 takeaways and Green Bay's fifth-ranked 13 giveaways.
After a turnover, the Packers have allowed eight touchdowns and two field goals for 61 points, or 4.7 points per drive. That's the worst rate in the NFL, according to STATS. Chicago has turned its takeaways into 109 points, or 3.1 per drive. That's 19th in the league, a remarkably bad success rate when you consider the Bears have scored seven defensive touchdowns. Take those out, and the Bears' offense has scored 2.1 points per turnover.
"You go back a couple years ago, we were in the top two or three in the league," Capers said. "We haven't been as good in that area this year. Hopefully, from this point on, we're good in this league."
— In the Packers' five-game winning streak against Chicago, they've forced 13 turnovers and held the Bears to 13.0 points per game.
— This is strength vs. strength: Green Bay's third-down offense ranks seventh with a 43.6 percent success rate while Chicago's third-down defense allows first downs a sixth-ranked 35.1 percent of the time.
— While the red zone offense has faltered, the Packers lead the NFL with 15 touchdowns and 132 points from outside the red zone. That compares favorably to last year's 20 touchdowns and 154 points. Until DuJuan Harris' 14-yard scoring run last week, the Packers' last nine touchdowns had been from 20-plus yards.
The other sideline
— We've said plenty about receiver Brandon Marshall this week. Here's one more thing. He's one of five players in NFL history with 1,000-yard receiving seasons for three teams. Marshall did it with Denver in 2007 through 2009, Miami in 2010 and 2011 and Chicago this season. The others: Irving Fryar with New England, Miami and Philadelphia, Tony Martin with San Diego, Atlanta and Miami, Randy Moss with Minnesota, Oakland and New England, and Terrell Owens with San Francisco, Philadelphia and Dallas.
— The problem is, Marshall's a one-man receiving corps. He's got 101 catches. The next four players on the Bears' list have combined for 101: running back Matt Forte with 36 and receivers Earl Bennett and Devin Hester with 23 apiece and receiver Alshon Jeffrey with 19.
"For us to get where we want to go, we've got to have some other guys step up on this offense and make plays, whether it's running backs or the receivers," Cutler said. "You can't be one-dimensional in this league, especially in December, and expect to win important games."
— Cutler's 81.8 passer rating with Chicago is tops in franchise history. When he's registered ratings of at least 100, his teams are 25-1 — 10-0 with Denver and 15-1 with Chicago. The loss came two weeks ago against Seattle in overtime. His .962 winning percentage in 100-rating games is third among active quarterbacks (Matt Ryan is 30-1 for .968 and Alex Smith is 14-0-1 for .967). If you were wondering, Aaron Rodgers is 36-7 for .837.
— Since 2003, Charles Tillman has forced 38 fumbles. How incredible is that? Among defensive backs during the last 10 seasons, Brian Dawkins is a distant second with 21 and Charles Woodson is fourth with 19. Since 1991, Tillman and Dawkins are the only players with at least 30 interceptions and 30 forced fumbles. Tillman has 32 interceptions to give him 70 interceptions/forced fumbles in 143 games. Dawkins leads the way with 73 (37 interceptions, 36 forced fumbles) in 224 games.
— The Packers won't miss Brian Urlacher. In 23 career games against Green Bay in the regular season, not only does he have 155 tackles and three sacks, but he's got five interceptions. With the Packers about to put away the Bears in the third quarter of the 2010 NFC Championship Game, Urlacher picked off Rodgers in the end zone.
"Brian's been in that defense for a long time," Rodgers said. "He's a big-time player. Got a good chance of going to the Hall probably when he's done. I think Nick Roach has really stepped up the last couple of years and improved and become a real good player for them and Geno Hayes is going to step in and play, as well, so I'm sure those guys are going to be as prepared as possible. Having Lance Briggs, who knows the system so well to help those guys out, I'm sure is definitely a plus, but they're so well coached and understand the system well and where the strengths in the coverage are and where they've got to make up for it at times. They're going to be ready for us. They always play us tough and we expect that kind of game."
— The Packers won't miss seeing Robbie Gould, either, with the kicker going on IR this week. In 15 games against Green Bay, Gould made 25-of-28 field goals. Overall, Gould has made 10 consecutive field goals from 50-plus yards dating to 2010, the second-longest streak in NFL history behind Tony Zendejas' 11-kick streak from 1988 through 1993. Packers kicker Mason Crosby has missed seven in a row from 50-plus since hitting from 54 against the Bears in Week 2.
— Speaking of special teams, Hester and Randall Cobb are two of the best returners in the league but don't expect anything special on Sunday. The Bears lead the league in punt coverage with 3.9 yards per return and Green Bay is third with 4.9 per return. Chicago finished second, ninth and second in opponent punt return average in 2009, 2010 and 2011, respectively.
— The best offense is a good defense for Chicago. The Bears have scored seven defensive touchdowns this season and 32 since Smith took over in 2004. The Bears are 5-0 in those games this season, 20-2 since 2005 and 23-5 overall. Since 2004, Green Bay leads the NFL with 26 interceptions returned for touchdowns. The Bears and Ravens have 25 pick-sixes.
Quote of the week
Or, the best thing that was said that we couldn't work into a story ...
Clay Matthews, on being in a "zone" as a pass rusher, like in Week 2, when he had 3.5 sacks against Cutler: "When you have a good day rushing the passer — it might not equal sacks directly, but if you feel good as a pass rusher, you get into a routine, a rhythm and a groove. I definitely felt that was the case the first time we played them. I want to break out a little bit of the rust sitting out a few games, but there shouldn't be a drop-off. Hopefully, there isn't."
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.