Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy always talks about the development of his first-year players into their second year. Nobody on special teams in 2015 made a bigger jump than Jeff Janis.
Though the wide receiver by trade finished third on the team in special teams snaps and second in total tackles, he displayed the most explosive skills as a kick returner — finishing fourth in the league at 29.0 yards per return (among those with at least 14 returns) — and on the Packers’ coverage units. His consistency and effort as a gunner on the punt coverage team had others taking notice late in the season.
Janis missed just two of 80 snaps in punt coverage over the regular season. Among his highlights were forcing a muff in the season finale at Lambeau Field and recording six tackles for losses. But perhaps most impressive was that he was knocked down only a handful of times all season by those trying to block him — whether he was double- or even triple-teamed.
Yes, in the game that put Janis on the map as a gunner, the Dallas Cowboys had three sets of eyes on Janis for the final punt of the game yet still could not stop him. After using an outside release to get by Brandon Carr, Janis spun around Barry Church downfield, and when Jeff Heath was woefully late trying to help from his middle backer spot, diminutive return man Lucky Whitehead was planted for a 2-yard loss. It was the third tackle for loss on special teams in the game for Janis. On three of the previous four punts, the Cowboys committed two players to Janis after he soundly beat Carr on the game’s first punt. Whitehead was forced into two fair catches that day. He had just four all season vs. 19 returns.
Janis’ performance against the Cowboys was polling No. 1 on Packers.com last week for “Peak Performances of 2015: Special Teams” edging Mason Crosby’s NFL record of five made field goals of at least 40 yards at Minnesota.
Speed is Janis’ greatest tool, obviously, for his success at the gunner position, where the Packers are deep with Quentin Rollins and Demetri Goodson also returning in 2016. But Janis often took advantage of defenders in press coverage at the line of scrimmage, too, to win battles easily within the first 10 yards downfield.
“It’s a lot of carryover from receiver,” said special teams coordinator Ron Zook, also giving credit to assistant special teams coach Jason Simmons.
“He’s big, strong and physical. Jeff’s a big guy and he runs. Once he gets going, he can go and he keeps them off his body.”
Like learning the nuances of routes and the playbook on offense as a receiver, Janis was a relative novice to special teams entering the NFL. So, at times in 2015 there were still mistakes. Against the St. Louis Rams, he slid unnecessarily into the end zone trying to down a punt inside the 5-yard line. And at home against the Detroit Lions, he overran a couple of punts fielded by dangerous return man Golden Tate.
Such mistakes, however, were short-lived.
“The one thing I was really impressed with Jeff this year is he normally didn’t make the same mistake twice,” said Zook. “I coached him hard and I’m sure the offensive coaches coached him hard but he bought in and I think it showed off.”
After the Rams game, Janis showed more control when the opportunity to down a punt presented itself at Carolina. And even though he drew more attention from opponents later in the year, he showed a better awareness of the angles needed to make a play.
Attention on Janis also opened up plays for others. The Raiders were so preoccupied with Janis on the second punt of a Dec. 20 game at Oakland that Aaron Ripkowski was able to run free from his right guard spot to pull down Jeremy Ross for a 1-yard loss. After Janis went in motion from his usual right gunner spot, three different Raiders took their shots at Janis downfield giving the Packers a decided advantage.
The next step in Janis’ development as a gunner will be to beat the best. If one defender got the better of him last season, it was the Arizona Cardinals’ Justin Bethel. In the regular-season finale, the two-time Pro Bowl special teamer shut down Janis like no one else. Not only was he successful in getting his hands on Janis down the field, but he also knocked him down twice and drew a facemask penalty when Janis was trying to get away.
“(No.) 28 (Bethel), he’s the one guy that could run with him,” said Zook following a second visit to Arizona for the playoffs. “Most people are not able to run with him so once he gets a step on them, he’s able to go.”
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org