5 Days ’Til Camp: Some Things Special

Every day until the start of camp on July 26, we’ll provide one juicy nugget to whet your appetite for the return of football. We’d give you more but the CBA forbids two-a-days. Sorry. Shoddy coverage, not the return units, doomed the special teams last year and must improve this year.

The focus for the Green Bay Packers’ special teams will be on who returns kicks.

Or, perhaps, the focus will be on whether Mason Crosby can duplicate last year’s success, when he had by far his best season on the heels of by far his worst season.

The internal focus, however, will be on the coverage units.

“I thought we had a good year in a couple of areas and did poorly in one particular area, and that’s explosive gains in coverage,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “That’s something we’ve really got to improve. Can’t give up explosive gains and expect to win field position or games.”

The coverage units were the shortfall on what was, by season’s end, a respectable special teams. Green Bay finished last in the league in starting field position by its opponents following kickoffs and 21st in net punting. Only Pittsburgh (29th kickoffs, 31st net punting) and Chicago (26th kickoffs, 28th net punting) were worse when both rankings were put together.

Minnesota’s Cordarrelle Patterson had a 108-yard touchdown on a kickoff return in the first game and a 57-yard return in the second. Cleveland’s Travis Benjamin returned a kickoff 86 yards. Former Packers returner Jeremy Ross, playing for Detroit, had one of four 30-plus-yard punt returns. Against Pittsburgh, Emmanuel Sanders had a 54-yard kickoff return and Antonio Brown had a 41-yard punt return.

Green Bay’s kickoff return unit was perched at or near the bottom of the league in average the entire season and wound up ranked 30th with a 20.3-yard average. However, with Micah Hyde providing a spark after Ross and Johnathan Franklin bombed, the Packers wound up a decent 18th in starting field position. Impressively, behind Hyde’s fifth-ranked average of 12.3 yards, Green Bay led the league in opponent net punting average at 35.6 yards.

“Let’s applaud a guy like Micah Hyde, who was fifth in the league in punt returns and had really good production,” Slocum said. “We were No. 1 in the league in net punt. That’s pretty strong, that statistic, in terms of field position.”

While Green Bay’s punt coverage was terrible – its 13.1-yard average ranked 29th – punter Tim Masthay’s ability to play keepaway was a plus. According to ProFootballFocus.com, he ranked third in the league with opponents returning 31.3 percent of his punts. Because of that, the Packers wound up No. 21 in net punting behind Masthay’s team-record 39.0 net average. In every exchange of punts, the Packers gained, on averaged, 3.4 yards.

Green Bay’s kickoff unit was a disaster, with its No. 32 ranking in field position. Slocum played the special teams equivalent of prevent defense by not allowing Crosby to swing for the fences, due in part to the porous coverage unit and a bunch of late-season, cold-weather games, but it didn’t work. While Masthay boomed 50.0 percent of his kickoffs for touchbacks, Crosby ranked next-to-last with a touchback rate of 22.8 percent. It was an interesting change in approaches after Crosby hit 46.2 percent touchbacks in 2011 and 40.2 percent touchbacks in 2012.

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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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