Kickoffs Outweigh Strengths on Special Teams

The Packers rank 22nd in our midseason special teams rankings due to trouble on kickoffs and kickoff returns. (Kyle Terada//USA TODAY)

Green Bay Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum needed only 109 words to deliver a Cliff’s Notes-style summation of his units through the first eight weeks of the season.

The first 20 words were the most critical.

“I think we need to go back and detail a couple of the explosive kickoff returns that we’ve given up,” Slocum said on Monday, a day after Green Bay lost at New Orleans. “We need to not allow that in the second half of the season.”

In Packer Report’s midseason special teams rankings, the Packers were tied for 22nd. Entering this week’s games, the Packers ranked 12th in field-goal percentage and both net punting categories.

Kickoffs, however, have been the big problem.

On kickoffs, the opponents’ average starting field position of the 23.0-yard line ranks 27th in the league. Mason Crosby is kicking it well on kickoffs, with 56.5 percent touchbacks being close to the league average of 60.7 percent, but the Packers are allowing 24.6 yards per kickoff return (21st in league).

Kickoff coverage was one of Slocum’s focal points during the offseason and that unit got off to a good start. However, in the last four games, opponents are averaging 31.1 yards on their nine runbacks.

On kickoff returns, Green Bay ranks 26th with an average starting point of the 20.0-yard line. That unit got off to a slow start and then hasn’t been a factor one way or the other, with the Packers returning only two kickoffs the past four games combined.

The other three phases of the special teams have held up their end of the bargain.

In each of his first four seasons, Tim Masthay has set the team’s record for net punting. He’s well on his way to doing so again with a 12th-ranked net average of 40.8. The coverage unit has been outstanding. Last season, Masthay’s net was 39.0. Opponents averaged 13.1 yards per return but didn’t get many opportunities, with Masthay ranking third with an opponent return percentage of just 31.3 percent, according to ProFootballFocus.com. This season, opponents are returning 46.4 percent of his punts but getting just 5.8 yards per return.

The punt return unit has been effective, too, though not to the extent of last season. Last year, the Packers led the NFL with an opponent net punting of 35.6 yards, thanks to Micah Hyde’s 12.3-yard average on returns. This season, with Randall Cobb averaging 10.8 per return and Hyde 9.8, Green Bay is a respectable 12th with an opponent net of 39.1. In the last four games in which the Packers have had a punt return, Cobb had a 22-yard runback against Detroit, an 11-yard return against Minnesota and a 24-yard return against Carolina, and Hyde had a 24-yard run back against Miami.

“I think punting the ball we’re going a great job, 40-yard net, we’re not giving up much there,” Slocum said. “We’ve been pretty good with our punt return in terms of explosive returns at least the last couple weeks. We need to generate that.”

With the potential of seven cold-weather games in the final eight weeks of the season, the special teams will play a bigger role. The ball won’t be as easy to kick for Masthay and Crosby, and kickoff returners DuJuan Harris and Kevin Dorsey might get more than the occasional opportunity.

“We’re playing with more consistency, I think, and I think we’re playing fast,” Slocum said. “We just need to help the team. We need to make plays. We need to make explosive plays that can change the momentum in ballgames.”

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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