“I think special teams will factor in the outcome of this game,” coach Mike McCarthy said on Monday, looking ahead to Sunday’s NFC Divisional playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys.
Based on the play of their special teams this season, the Packers probably shouldn’t be putting the fate of their season on their special teams.
In Packer Report’s special teams rankings (see chart), Dallas finished 10th and Green Bay was 31st. The Packers had a league-high seven kicks blocked and ranked 30th in field position allowed after a kickoff, 31st in net punting and 23rd in field position after a kickoff return and field-goal accuracy.
“Yeah, definitely,” McCarthy said when asked if it was possible to fix those shortcomings with the help of a bye week.
He had better be right because special teams played a big role in the Wild Card games, especially on the NFC side. For all the focus on the pass interference penalty that wasn’t and Lions coach Jim Caldwell’s decision to punt on fourth-and-1 near midfield midway through the fourth quarter, Dallas might not have won that game without a gift from the Punting Gods. With a good kick, Detroit punter Sam Martin could have pinned the Cowboys inside their 10-yard line. Instead, his 10-yard punt gave the Cowboys the ball at their 41, creating a short field for their game-winning touchdown drive. And before all of that, after Dallas pulled within 20-17 on Dan Bailey’s 51-yard field goal, former Packers returner Jeremy Ross made a horrendous decision and was buried at his 5-yard line on the ensuing kickoff.
In the other NFC game, Arizona’s Ted Ginn fumbled a kickoff return, which the Panthers recovered at the 3-yard line and punched in to take an insurmountable 27-14 lead.
“There were some things that happened in those games that I think can happen quickly in a playoff game,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “The energy level rises and, with that, you can get things like illegal blocks or blocking a guy out of bounds or holding because a guy’s trying to do more. I think it’s important for us to stay within ourselves and execute our plan and play effectively.”
Perhaps Micah Hyde and Randall Cobb will provide the dormant kickoff-return unit a jolt. However, the easiest road to improvement is blocking on kicks and getting Tim Masthay back into his typical form. Masthay, who broke the team record for net punting average in each of his first four seasons with the team, fell from a 39.0-yard net in 2013 to 37.0 in 2014. The two blocks have hurt that average but he’s had only one game with a net of more than 36.0 yards since Week 7 vs. Carolina. He’s also had just one 50-yard punt since that Carolina game.
“I think the things that have gone wrong on special teams, first you look at the protection,” McCarthy said. “Those are more technical, fundamental problems. We had a padded practice Saturday and had a chance to go live full speed as far as the protection. We’ve made some adjustments — I like the way that looks so I feel confident with that moving forward.
“Tim’s been an excellent punter for us for a long time so it’s just getting coordinated between the ball placement and the punting. Hopefully, he doesn’t have to punt a whole lot and then, when he does, he’s got to be ready. Some of those things we’ve addressed. Actually, Shawn and Tim went down and worked exclusively (Monday) to get some extra work in. All the things that we needed to improve on, we addressed. At the end of the day, it’s about confidence.”
For Slocum’s units, the playoffs serve as a fresh start. A game-changing return by Hyde or a clutch kick from Mason Crosby can render the season’s struggles irrelevant.
“We do everything we do to get to this point, to have the opportunity to compete for the championship,” Slocum said. “We’re excited about it. It’ll be a big challenge. The level of play increases a lot. It’ll be important that we handle all the different situations that can show up and do that to help our team win.”
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