Commentary

MINNEAPOLIS – Take away their hiccup to the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers have been an enjoying a successful season. The offense is humming. The defense is stopping opponents despite injuries to a handful of starters. Special teams? Uh-um. They are coming around at times but have to start holding up their end of the deal.<p>

Special teams alone is not to blame for Green Bay's 31-21 loss to the woeful Vikings on Sunday, but they did play a role late in the game. And it was just enough to allow the Vikings to take the lead for good.

After the Packers clawed back from two 14-point deficits to tie the game, the Vikings' Moe Williams' took the kickoff, broke a few tackles and raced 51 yards to the Packers' 48. To add fuel to the fire, Robert Ferguson was penalized for a face mask violation at the other end of the field and Minnesota began the drive at Green Bay's 33 yard line. Any moment that the Packers built was gone in one play due to a breakdown on special teams.

"It really put them in field goal range right away," said Packers quarterback Brett Favre. "I was hoping we would pin 'em back and get a turnover or a big return, or something to give us a chance."

Instead the Vikings got the momentum, then the lead on Gary Anderson's 32-yard field goal.

The Packers need something, anything out of special teams for this season to be truly special but thus far have gotten very little. While the coverage units have improved somewhat from a disasterous preseason and early season performances, the punt and kickoff return teams still linger in the bottom half of the league.

The Packers ranked 31st out of 32 teams in punt returns with an average of just 4.0 yards per return entering Sunday's game against the Vikings. Green Bay was 22nd in kickoff returns with an average of 20.8 yards per return.

Kickoff return man Javon Walker averaged 25.5 yards on six returns against the Vikings. But Minnesota finished the day with an average kickoff return of 26.3 yards.

Darrien Gordon came to Green Bay last July as the final piece to the big puzzle. Gordon's signing came about a month after the Packers inked Hardy Nickerson and a couple months after Joe Johnson received a boatload of money. Like Nickerson and Johnson, the Packers have gotten little in return for their investments.

Gordon led the NFC in punt return average last year but has only sprung free for any decent yards a few occasions. His longest runback of the season is 27 yards. Is Gordon that much slower from last year when he led the NFC with an average of 14.1 yards per return? Is the blocking for Gordon adequate? Is it the coaching? There are many questions but few have been answered by the Packers.

On Sunday Gordon only had one chance to return a punt against the Vikings and he was tackled right away due to a lack of blocking. His other three chances were fair catches.

Packers coach/GM Mike Sherman is just as puzzled as to why the Packers have been unable to pick it up on special teams, but it's not because he and special teams coach Frank Novak aren't trying.

"From the beginning of the season till right now the coverage units have improved dramatically," said Sherman. "We were going against a pretty good return team the other day (against Detroit) and I thought we faired fairly well. We had a major emphasis put on our return game last week in practices and meetings. It certainly didn't show on the football field. We didn't have great returns on either side, whether it was kickoff return or punt return. It's something that I addressed, will continue to address and something that I feel needs to improve.

"In all fairness to Darrien Gordon, I don't know if he's had enough opportunities to do very much. We have not done a great job of blocking on that for whatever reason. I know I sound like a broken record. I don't often have to repeat things that we have to get better. We usually get them fixed. We haven't got them fixed yet and we need to. There will be a major emphasis this week."

While Gordon has not been able to give the Packers decent field position on a consistent basis, he has not turned the ball over by dropping any punts.

"It's a tough job," Sherman said. "We went through the season last year with ‘Free' (Antonio Freeman) doing it. I think that Darrien's doing a much better job in his decision in fielding the football. I think we're improved there. Significantly. No, I don't think we've improved significantly."

The kickoff return game has gotten a few sparks from rookies Walker and Najeh Davenport, but you never get a feeling that they have a chance to run it back on any kickoff.

The Packers took a notable step toward improving the punt return game by signing free agent J.J. Moses to the team's practice squad. It may serve as a wakeup call to Gordon.

If the Packers can get it going on special teams, they will have a very good chance at securing homefield advantage for the playoffs this season. But special teams will have to be in peak form in key NFC games beginning this Sunday against Tampa Bay and Dec. 15 at San Francisco. If special teams continues to be mediocre, the Packers may have to hit the road in the postseason. Hopefully they won't have to play in a dome.


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