Mid-season analysis: Special teams

Packers are struggling in all areas

When the Green Bay Packers see Allen Rossum returning punts and kickoffs for the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, they'll probably kick themselves even harder. Since Rossum left Green Bay after the 2001 season and signed as a free agent with Atlanta, Green Bay's return game has sputtered.

Rossum was the last Packer to return a punt for a touchdown. That was Nov. 4, 2001, when he took one back 55 yards in a 21-20 win over Tampa Bay. Those were the days when special teams, every once in a while, chipped in to make a difference in a game and help the Packers win.

That's not the case this season. Even Ryan Longwell, who has been nearly automatic from just about any reasonable distance for field goal attempts in recent years, has missed four already this season.

Last Sunday against Pittsburgh, Longwell declined to attempt a 48-yard field goal late in the game that could have helped the Packers close in on the Steelers. He said it was too windy. Or could it be that he's in the final year of his contract and doesn't want to further skew his percentage?

Longwell also missed an extra point attempt this season. That hasn't happened in four years.

Besides Longwell's struggles, the Packers are 30th out of 32 teams in kickoff return average (19.4 yards per return). Green Bay moved up to ninth in punt return average (9.0 yards per return) thanks to Antonio Chatman's season-best 36-yard return against Pittsburgh. Chatman is very reliable at catching punts, which Coach Mike Sherman admires, but he hasn't proved to be a threat to take it all the way for a touchdown in the last three seasons.

To be fair, injuries have played a part in how the special teams have performed this season, but that's the case for every NFL team. The Packers lost rookie Terrence Murphy (neck) and Najeh Davenport (ankle) for the season in October to return kickoffs. Both had all kinds of promise in this area, but both can only watch from the sideline now. Free agent running back ReShard Lee has taken over, but with little success.

One bright spot of special teams is that Green Bay's coverage units have not given up a touchdown this season. The longest punt return against the Packers has only been 12 yards, which ranks the Packers second in the league. Rookie linebacker Brady Poppinga has been a breath of fresh air with his intensity and hustle to the ball.

However, the kickoff coverage unit ranks 23rd in the league. Minnesota's Koren Robinson had a 72-yard kickoff return in the first half of Green Bay's 23-20 loss to the Packers. Green Bay got the ball back on the next play when Daunte Culpepper fumbled. But Robinson struck again late in the game with a 25-yard return that helped set up Paul Edinger's game-winning 56-yard field goal.

The banged-up Packers will need any kind of spark out of their special teams in order to win a few games during the second half of the season. Thus far, special teams have been more detrimental than helpful for the Packers.

If Sherman continues as head coach next season, he should attempt to improve these units by hiring a new special teams coach to replace current special teams coordinator John Bonamego.

Grade: D

Thursday: Offense
Friday: Defense
Today: Special teams
Sunday: Coaching

Todd Korth is managing editor of PackerReport.com and Packer Report. E-mail your thoughts to him at packrepted@aol.com.

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