Special Teams on the Rise with Impact Plays

Lost in the drama of Aaron Rodgers' injury Monday night was an outstanding special teams effort for the Packers. Two impact plays in particular kept the Packers in a tight game. Plus, the good and the bad on special teams from the first half of the season.

The Green Bay Packers might have been blown right out of Lambeau Field last Monday night had it not been for their special teams units.

After quarterback Aaron Rodgers went down with a fractured collarbone on the first series, a blocked punt and surprise onside kick swung the momentum for the Packers, dramatically altering the field position in a close battle with the Chicago Bears.

The Packers finished with just 20 points, and had it not been for the 10 produced as a result of the two impact plays on special teams, they likely would have gone below their lowest point total of the season (19 at Baltimore on Oct. 13 in a game that they won). The margin of victory for the Bears could have been double digits. The Packers came into the game favored by that much, according to the oddsmakers.

At the midway point of the regular season, coming off a crushing NFC North defeat, new questions are surfacing as to the long-term health of the offensive and defensive units. On special teams, however, there are reasons for optimism. The Packers are showing signs of being a force and dictating the action, rather than letting other teams do the same to them.

Jamari Lattimore's block of an Adam Podlesh punt — which set the Packers' offense up at the Bears' 32-yard line — was one of those signs.

"The blocked punt was a basic punt rush," said special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum. "I thought our guys executed it really well — in particular Brandon Bostick and Jamari Lattimore. Brandon got off the ball really quickly and the tackle blocked him initially and couldn't get out to Jamari."

Running back James Starks scored on the ensuing play to give the Packers a 10-7 lead in the first quarter.

The surprise onside kick, executed by Mason Crosby and recovered by Lattimore, also led to a scoring drive, which gave the Packers a three-point lead in the third quarter. It came right after a 1-yard touchdown run by Eddie Lacy tied the game at 17.

To Slocum, the onside kick was not that much of a surprise, however. The Packers talk about "deceptive plays" each week in game planning and he knows Mike McCarthy's history and success rate with such calls. He thought the Bears front-line players were ready for it, despite a typical numbers disadvantage.

"I mean, the way (Blake) Costanzo reacted, he reacted to the ball well. It's just a basic problem for kickoff return teams in that you've got, if you look at five-by-five kickoff team (five players to the right, the kicker, and five players to the left), there's only three guys over there (on one side for the Bears) and you've got five by alignment," said Slocum.

Big special teams plays have been a theme of recent Packers-Bears clashes. Most of the time they have involved Devin Hester, but McCarthy turned the tide of a Week 2 game last season when he called for a fake field goal that turned into a 27-yard touchdown by Tom Crabtree.

The biggest play on special teams for the Packers this year came on Oct. 27 at Minnesota, when rookie Micah Hyde took a punt back 93 yards for a score to offset the 109-yard kickoff return by the Vikings' Cordarrelle Patterson to start the game. While the Packers had used Jeremy Ross and Johnathan Franklin this season with little success as return men, Hyde has solidified the punt and kick return duties over the past two weeks with his performance and confidence.

"He's decisive," said Slocum. "I thought he did a nice job on the first (kick) return (a 31-yarder against the Bears). He's obviously demonstrated his ability to score."

On the flip side, the Packers might have something going with a rotation of Tim Masthay and Crosby on kickoffs. Crosby has handled the duties of late (13 of the last 20 kickoffs) and is called on more for directional kicks, while Masthay handled duties early in the season (15-of-30 on touchbacks as the primary kickoff man over the first five games).

Does having two guys available to kick off actually give the Packers an edge? Can it influence the way the other teams set up their kick return units?

"I think so," said Slocum. "We have two guys that I think are productive in different ways. So, it's a good situation to be in to have two kickers.

"We'll make those decisions (on which kicker to use) as we go forward."

Helping matters on special teams is that a couple key leaders are coming back from injuries. Ace coverage man Jarrett Bush returned at Minnesota from a hamstring injury and Ryan Taylor was back last week following a knee injury. Both contributed to a team effort in holding Hester scoreless as a returner for the seventh straight game in the series. Hester was coming off an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown at Washington in the Bears last game, and although he got free for a 23-yard punt return on Monday night, that was his only runback on six Masthay punts.

"It was good," said Slocum of his unit's performance overall against the Bears. "I thought we did a pretty good job covering Devin. He had a nice punt return that we didn't cover very well. But we forced him inside the 20 several times and affected the field position quite a bit."

Midseason Special Teams Report

The Good: With a 16.5-yard average on 12 punt returns, Micah Hyde is No. 2 in the NFL behind the Ravens' Tandon Doss (17.8). Take away his 93-yarder at Minnesota and Hyde would still rank a respectable 12th in the league among those with at least 10 returns.

The Bad: The Packers are last in the league in kickoff return average (16.3 yards per return on 15 returns) and last in kickoff return average allowed (31.0 on 29 returns). They have allowed an NFL-record-tying 109-yard return (Cordarrelle Patterson) and an 86-yard return (Travis Benjamin).

The Good: Mason Crosby has bounced back from the worst season of his seven-year career by connecting on 19 of 21 field goals. His 82 total points are third-best in the league behind the Patriots' Stephen Gostkowski (90) and the Jets' Nick Folk (83).

The Bad: The normally reliable John Kuhn tried to pick up a blocked punt beyond the line of scrimmage and fumbled at Baltimore. Ross mishandled a short kickoff at Cincinnati and was released a day later.

The Good: Tim Masthay is second in the league with only 26.7 percent of his punts being returned. Last season, he finished at 34.3 percent.

The Bad: The Packers have 11 special teams penalties this season and are on pace for their most since the 2010 season.

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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com

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