Special Teams Has It Covered

In a positive sign with the changing of the seasons, Green Bay's special teams turned in a strong performance against the Bears. (Benny Sieu/USA TODAY)

Chicago’s Chris Williams tied an NFL record on Sunday night with 10 kickoff returns.

That, of course, is a byproduct of the Green Bay Packers scoring nine times in a 55-14 blowout of the rival Bears.

“I don’t know,” Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said when jokingly asked Monday if his kickoff unit had caught its breath. “That’s maybe the first time I’ve been through a game with 11 kickoffs.”

Actually, the Packers only kicked off 10 times. You can forgive Slocum for losing count.

Green Bay’s kickoff coverage ranked in the bottom third of the league heading into Sunday night’s game, with opponents averaging 24.6 yards per return. For the first nine kickoffs against the Bears, that unit turned in its best performance of the season. Even without a touchback from Mason Crosby, Chicago’s average starting field position on the first nine kickoffs was the 18.3-yard line, including the 6 to start the game. Williams averaged 20.8 yards per return. However, on the 10th and final kickoff of the night, Williams returned the ball 101 yards for a touchdown through a mix-and-match unit put together on the fly due to the lopsided score.

“When we evaluate things and look at it as a team, we’ll look at the things we did well and look at the things we need to do better, and look at it objectively. That’s all we can do,” Slocum said.

One of the highlights of the night came early in the third quarter. With Chicago’s Pat O’Donnell standing at about his 5-yard line to punt, Green Bay’s Jarrett Boykin made a remarkable play. He breezed through Chicago’s line so quickly that he got to O’Donnell before the ball even hit O’Donnell’s foot. Boykin jumped to block the punt; instead, Boykin’s foot struck the ball (see photo).

“I’ve seen guys get there before the punter strikes the ball and actually tackle him, but that was a little strange,” said Slocum, who had his first special teams job in 1990 at the University of Pittsburgh. “Jarrett jumped in the air and struck the ball with his foot. It was kind of odd.”

“He did a great job with his technique on the rush,” Slocum added later. “The wing bit on an outside move and he came underneath.”

Officially, it was ruled a fumble because O’Donnell never actually kicked the ball. Slocum believes a punt is “initiated when the punter releases the ball,” so it might wind up being ruled a block, after all.

Not that it matters. Green Bay took over at the 8-yard line.

“Whatever they want to do statistically, they can do,” Slocum said. “We’ll go in the room Wednesday and say, ‘Great job on the blocked punt. Now let’s get ready for the Eagles.’”

With two games in which neither team punted and with touchbacks on kickoffs being the rule rather than the exception, it had been a relatively ho-hum first half of the season for Slocum’s units. That has changed, though. Winter arrived in Green Bay on Sunday night. Of the combined 13 kickoffs, there was only one touchback.

“Fall, winter weather is here. The return game opportunities go up,” McCarthy said. “We made a big emphasis of that. The coverage units, the stress on them goes way up. I thought our coverage units were outstanding (other than the touchdown). Covering the football and the return game in the winter time in Green Bay, Wisconsin, is definitely a primary focus.”

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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