The Green Bay Packers made drastic changes on special teams last offseason, firing coordinator Shawn Slocum and ridding themselves of several key performers.
With Ron Zook stepping in at coordinator, punter Tim Masthay having a record-setting season and Jeff Janis and Chris Banjo covering kicks at astounding levels, the Packers got their payoff. Green Bay went from No. 31 last season to No. 16 this season in Packer Report’s special teams rankings.
In the more expansive rankings put together annually by Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin, the Packers went from No. 32 to No. 17 — identical 15-spot improvements.
We measure five key statistical categories. The first four focus on field position — net punting average, opponent net punting average, starting field position following a kickoff, opponent starting field position following a kickoff — and field-goal accuracy.
Thanks to early production from rookie Ty Montgomery and late production from Janis, the Packers finished fifth in field position following a kickoff return. Green Bay was No. 23 in that category last year. The other big gain was net punting. With Masthay setting the franchise record with a net average of 40.25 yards per punt, Green Bay finished 13th this season compared to 31st last season.
“I thought Ron Zook did a great job,” coach Mike McCarthy said on Monday. “Jason (Simmons, Zook’s assistant)) also was outstanding. It really started from Day 1, getting in there in the spring and going through every page of the playbook and throwing out as much as we possibly could, and just really narrowing down on the basics and fundamentals. Then they just did a great job coaching it. At the end of the day, it came down to the fundamentals and I think it was clearly reflected in our (punt) coverage unit.”
According to the coaches’ count, Banjo — who spent most of last season on the practice squad — had a team-high 21 tackles. That’s the most since Desmond Bishop tallied 22 in 2009. Janis added 15, Jayrone Elliott 11, and Demetri Goodson, Aaron Ripkowski and Joe Thomas chipped in seven apiece. All six of those players are rookies or second-year players and all are age 24 of younger with the exception of Goodson, the former college basketball player who is 26.
Zook frequently said you can’t go to the store to buy experience. Instead, the young players took to the coaching and stepped to the forefront as the Packers moved on from veteran Jarrett Bush and lost safety Sean Richardson early in the season with a neck injury.
Finishing 16th was a big improvement but it also was a big drop-off. The Packers were fifth at the bye, their ranking sunk by a kickoff-coverage unit that gave up two big returns to Minnesota’s Cordarelle Patterson and a 104-yarder to Detroit’s Ameer Abdullah.
Still, Zook has his units pointing in the right direction.
“We sit down with Coach in the beginning of the year and we went through paragraph by paragraph, period by period, and really talked about the things we wanted to get done,” Zook said. “We all got on the same page. And then I think the biggest thing is probably our players bought into it. There’s a lot of talk about scheme, but if there was really one offense or one defense or one special teams that was the best, everybody would be doing it. We all believe in what we’re doing, and our players believe it. Every year here, we’re probably going to have a lot of young guys — that’s our philosophy — and those guys, the quicker they buy in and see what we’re trying to get accomplished, the better we’re going to be as a team. And, hopefully, we should be better next year. We’ve got to continue to improve.”
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.