Special teams provide big edge

Defensive backups like White, Hunter and Blackmon make a big difference in field position. That will be critical this season, Packer Report's Bill Huber says.

There are questions about an injury-riddled defense and an offense that will be jumping headfirst into life without a legend.

The Green Bay Packers' special teams are ready, willing and able to pick up some of that slack. Oh, and confident.

"I think we have one of the best special-teams units in the NFL," Jason Hunter said.

The kicker, punter and returners — and, if something goes haywire, the snapper — are the focal points of any special teams. Games, however, can be won and lost with the hidden yardage provided by the coverage units and blockers.

Much has been made of the Packers' depth at linebacker. That depth comes into play on special teams, where Tracy White, Desmond Bishop and Brandon Chillar are core players. Defensive end Hunter is a budding special-teams star, and towering safety Aaron Rouse is a weapon, as well.

"I look for our special teams to be a factor in our season," coach Mike McCarthy said on Saturday. "I've said it all along: Defense, I think that's the starting point of our football team. I think with the improvement in our younger players and the improvement in our depth at defense will directly carry over to special teams, because I think our depth on special teams is very good."

The ringleaders are the veteran White and imposing Hunter. Hunter, an athletic 271-pounder, recorded 25 special-teams tackles last season — most by a Packer in 23 years — and is a menacing blocker on the kickoff-return wedge.

"We've got such a great special-teams unit," Hunter said. "Every team, you've got your starters, of course. We don't really have backups; we've got guys that you can put in who aren't starters. Those guys that aren't starters are playing on the special-teams units. That's why our special-teams units are so dangerous. We have so many great athletes that can be starters on defense or offense, but because they're not playing, they play on special teams. So, we have such a great core of guys."

White has 33 special-teams tackles the last two seasons, and scored a touchdown when he pounced on a fumbled punt in a Week 1 win over Philadelphia last season. His skills on special teams are the reason why he made the team instead of Abdul Hodge, and he takes a lot of pride in his unsung role.

"We do play a big part of the game, which lot of people don't realize," White said. "We've got a big obligation to put the defense and the offense in good field position."

With hard-nosed defensive backups and fullbacks Korey Hall and John Kuhn leading the way, the Packers figure to have a big advantage over most of their rivals. That's one advantage of having such a young roster. Young players don't make much money, so depth on teams with young rosters tends to be better. That roster depth pays off with players who have the ability and hunger to open lanes in the return game and stop opposing returners in their tracks.

"I definitely feel we can help win some games," Hunter said. "We've got the type of guys that can make dynamic plays and can change the outcome of games. We've got game-changers, game-breakers, guys that can affect the outcome of a game. Special teams can definitely be the ultimate factor in deciding the winner of the game."

The Packers think they have a game-changer in Will Blackmon, who was one of the top kickoff returners in NCAA Division I history at Boston College. Blackmon's first two seasons were derailed by foot and rib injuries, but he's healthy and ready to put his electric skills on display. He returned eight punts last season, including one for a 57-yard touchdown, and averaged 12.0 yards per punt return in the preseason.

When he gets the ball, his mind-set is simple: Score.

"That's the ultimate goal," Blackmon said. "Whoever gets the most points wins the game, so when I get the ball, I'm trying to score a touchdown. And if that doesn't work out, hopefully I've got great field position for the offense."

The hidden yardage provided by a good return or good coverage is an underrated facet of the game. If a punt returner has a 10-yard runback, that's one fewer first down the offense needs to get into scoring position.

Of course, a lot rides on new punter Derrick Frost and new snapper Brett Goode, and how they mesh with standout kicker Mason Crosby.

Frost doesn't have Jon Ryan's leg, but the Packers hope the combination of his hangtime and directional-kicking skills and the coverage unit's talent will mean a lot of 40-yard punts and 0-yard returns. While Ryan posted impressive numbers in Green Bay, he also had 23 touchbacks in two seasons. In his first four seasons, Frost had just 24. Clearly, pinning a team inside its 10-yard line is better than a 55-yard touchback. Plus, Ryan had two punts blocked last season while Frost has had just one in his career.

The bigger question is the snap-hold combination of Goode and Frost. Crosby, the NFL's reigning scoring champion, seemed prime for a big season until snapper J.J. Jansen sustained a season-ending knee injury and holder Ryan was released.

So far, so good with Goode and Frost, McCarthy said, but their first real test will be under the Monday night lights.

"We haven't had any blips on the screen or anything so far," McCarthy said. "It's been a pretty smooth operation. I know what counts is Monday night, and that will be their first opportunity, but the practice time has been very, very efficient."

If the kicking "operation" performs well, the Packers' special-teams could be a salvation for a team with so many other questions to start the season. That sort of pressure is embraced by Hunter.

"I look forward to showing the NFL that we're No. 1 (and) we're the best," he said.

Bill Huber is editor of Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com

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