When Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy fired special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum and general manager Ted Thompson sent most of the core members of the kicking units packing, this is what they had in mind.
In the first version of our five-category Packer Report Special Teams Rankings, the group led by Ron Zook ranks third.
In our final version last season, the Packers ranked 31st. In the more extensive 22-category rankings produced annually by the Dallas Morning News, the Packers finished 32nd.
Through two games, the sample size is incredibly small, obviously, and one good or bad play can greatly skew the rankings, with the No. 1 team getting one point and the No. 32 team getting 32 points. That’s especially apparent in field goals, where 17 teams haven’t missed any, so the teams with a miss on the ledger get a harsh penalty. However, the Packers have made dramatic gains in two areas where they were terrible last season. Green Bay ranks second in field position following a kickoff return and fourth in field position allowed following opponents’ kickoff returns. Last season, the Packers ranked 23rd and 30th, respectively, in those categories.
“These guys have worked awfully hard,” Zook said on Monday, a day after the Packers beat the Seahawks 27-17. “The thing that’s exciting is they’ve bought in, and that’s maybe because a lot of them are young. You play a lot of young players and they’re trying to prove themselves and they’ve done a nice job of trying to do the things we ask them to do.
“Mike’s given us a lot of time to work, particularly in camp, a lot of individual (reps). I’ve said this before, a lot of times these guys haven’t done a lot of (special teams) so you kind of start from scratch. These guys, they’re trying to do the things we ask them to do. During the games, it happened again yesterday, we can make adjustments with them. That means they’re studying, that means they’re listening during the week. We made some changes during the game and, looking at guys, they understand what’s going on. The experience will just continue to get better.”
In the showdown vs. Seattle, Zook’s special teams delivered with strong performances in every phase.
In the punt game, Tim Masthay bounced back from a poor performance at Chicago to beat Seattle standout Jon Ryan in net average -- 39.0 to 36.2.
“We all know what he can do,” Zook said of Masthay, who had a terrible second half to last season after setting the team’s net punt record in 2010 and eclipsing it in 2011, 2012 and 2013. “He’s like a pitcher that gets in a slump or a batter that gets in a slump. Thank God, finally, he’s coming out of it.”
On kickoffs, the Packers won the starting field position battle with an average start of the 19.0 vs. the 16.8 for Seattle.
Seattle’s explosive rookie, Tyler Lockett, averaged 19.8 yards on four kickoff returns and Seattle never started outside the 20-yard line. Lockett did have a 22-yard punt return but that was it on Masthay’s three punts.
Plus, Mason Crosby hit all four field-goal attempts, including a 54-yarder.
The one area where the Packers have slipped in the rankings is opponent net punting, an area in which they were fifth last season. Returner Micah Hyde hasn’t had a chance, with fair caches on all four punts that he’s fielded.
“He’s got three for touchdowns in two years. That’s pretty good,” Zook said. “We’ve got to get him off the spot. That’s one area that we’ve got to be better at Monday. The punter is giving great height, but we held him under his average. We actually had a better net than they did, which is something that you’re always trying to do. That’s a tribute to our guys getting after it. But we’ve got to make sure we give Micah a chance to get going north and south.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.