Special Teams Tilt Frozen Field for Packers

One of the worst special-teams units in the league played a key role in Green Bay's key victory over Atlanta. The Packers won every key category and made all the key plays in a season-saving comeback.

Before the Green Bay Packers played the Minnesota Vikings a couple weeks of ago, Packer Report published our first special-teams rankings.

The Packers ranked 29th in our five-category rankings (punt return and punt coverage, kickoff return and kickoff coverage and field goal percentage). Only their sixth-ranked punt return was a saving grace.

With that as a backdrop, the Packers' performance on special teams was remarkable and absolutely critical in a 22-21 victory over Atlanta.

Green Bay won every phase. Tim Masthay outpunted Matt Bosher. Micah Hyde outreturned Robert McClain on punts and Jacquizz Rodgers on kickoffs. Mason Crosby outkicked Matt Bryant.

"I thought we were very consistent yesterday overall, managing the weather and the field position, and that's the way it should be," special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said on Monday.

Perhaps the play of the game was Masthay's 62-yard punt with 56 seconds remaining. That forced the Falcons to start at their 9-yard line for their last-gasp drive.

"I thought it was excellent," Slocum said. "The ball stopped on the 1-yard line. He really hit a tight spiral over the returner's head and we did a good job covering it. I think their returner (McClain) probably thought that we first touched it and tried to advance it and, fortunately, the other guys coming showed up pretty quickly."

The Achilles heel all season had been the exchange of field position on kickoffs. Entering this week's games, the Packers ranked 29th with an average starting point of the 20.4-yard line following kickoff returns and were 32nd with the opponents' average starting point being the 25.8-yard line following kickoffs.

That was a 5.4-yard average difference in every exchange of kickoffs, by far the worst in the league.

On Sunday, the Packers gained 7.0 yards on every exchange of kickoffs.

Green Bay took possession on the 38 following one kickoff, its best of the season other than three out-of-bounds kickoffs that gave it the ball at the 40. Plus, Hyde's 32-yard return was the team's longest of the season.

Meanwhile, Crosby continued his huge season by connecting from 40, 33 and 25 yards. He's 29-for-33, including 10 in a row. His 87.9 percent accuracy for the season ranks 16th in the league. Last year, he was 21-of-33, with his 63.6 percent being worst in the league.

"Kicking the ball in the NFL is no easy chore," Slocum said. "I think Mason's had some high points, he's had some low points. He's at an excellent point right now. He's a very talented kicker. It's a tough process and it's easy — as I said last year — the easy thing to do is to change personnel. That's not always the right thing to do. He's having a good year. That's a credit to him and his work ethic."

Crosby looked right at home in frigid Lambeau Field, unlike Bryant. Bryant struggled throughout warmups, including coming up woefully short on a pair of 53-yard attempts. Nonetheless, Falcons coach Mike Smith sent him out for a 52-yarder in the fourth quarter. Not surprisingly, the kick came up woefully short.

"Inside 50 it felt OK, but when you got out into those long-range kicks, both sides, it was kind of knocking it down once it go towards the goal line," Slocum said. "That was a tough kick. It looked like he put a decent strike on it, but you could tell it came off OK and then it just kind of flattened out and fell short."

After a dome game next week at Dallas, the Packers host Pittsburgh and play at Chicago to end the season. That cold-weather experience could loom large down the stretch.

"We kicked in the stadium Wednesday and Friday. It's got to be an advantage for us," Slocum said. "This is our home. We spend time working with it and I thought both of our guys kicked the ball well yesterday."

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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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