Packers Put Emphasis on Kick Coverage

Breakdowns on kickoffs have played a key role in putting the Packers' playoff hopes in jeopardy.

Defensive back Jarrett Bush said the infrequency of special-teams plays — compared to the amount of plays a team's offense or defense is on the field — isn't conducive for getting mistakes corrected in a hurry.

So, the myriad blunders the Packers' kickoff coverage unit committed in the past two games have been all the more magnified.

"It's so easy to fix, but yet it happens so fast that you can't fix it at the moment," said Bush, a regular contributor on special teams.

In the wake of the coverage breakdowns that were instrumental in Green Bay losing both games, time is standing still this week. With the Packers (5-7) desperately needing a win Sunday over the visiting Houston Texans to stay in contention for the NFC North title, the often-underserved third phase of football is a focal point on the practice field.

Coach Mike McCarthy devoted extra time in practice to the fundamentals of kickoff and punt coverage.

"It is a part of our game that hasn't gone well the last two weeks," McCarthy said. "So, I think anytime you repeat mistakes, I don't think anybody is happy about it — myself and players and coaches included. It's something that we need to continue to improve on and make sure that we flip it the other way, the way it has been for half of the year."

McCarthy groused that the Packers gave away an average of more than 200 yards in field position the last two times out.

In the 51-29 loss at the New Orleans Saints on Nov. 24, the average starting point for the Saints offense was its 45-yard line, while the Packers' average starting spot was their 29.

The disparity in yards gained and lost for field position was greater Sunday, when Green Bay folded down the stretch and lost 35-31 at home against the Carolina Panthers. Whereas the Packers began drives, on average, at their 23, Carolina started at its 40.

The Panthers offense didn't have to cover more than 55 yards in any of its five scoring possessions, all of which ended with 1-yard touchdown runs — a first in NFL history.

As much as the Packers defense didn't do its job in keeping Carolina out of the end zone, more of the blame rested with Green Bay's kickoff coverage unit, which allowed Mark Jones to have three big runbacks of at least 42 yards.

"We're playing in lopsided football games the last two weeks, and that's hard to overcome, where a certain area has been way out of bounds, as far as our production against our opponent," McCarthy said. "That's what we need to get fixed. To overcome 200 yards of field position each game, that's a lot to ask of your defense, that's a lot to ask of your offense."

The back-breaker Sunday was a 45-yard kickoff return by Jones after the Packers had taken a 31-28 lead on a field goal by Mason Crosby following the 2-minute warning of the fourth quarter.

The Panthers started the possession at their 45 and needed only two plays and 27 seconds to get the game-winning touchdown. A 54-yard pass from Jake Delhomme to Steve Smith followed the Jones return.

The inability of coverage guys to get off blocks and stay in their lanes was a common denominator in the explosive kickoff returns by Jones and also one of 62 yards by Courtney Roby of the Saints.

"There's a phrase that we always use in kickoff coverage: ‘The closer you get, the faster you run,'" Packers special teams coordinator Mike Stock said. "If you slow down, you're going to get blocked. All you need to do is get bumped, bruised ... just one little bump and the guy's gone. The ball's coming full speed, full throttle, it's going to be hard to get back in the lane to make a tackle. So, the closer you get, the faster you run. (It's) lane discipline. ... We've been undisciplined in the last couple of games."

Green Bay's punt-coverage unit, which has done a solid job in allowing an average of only 7.2 yards per return, faces a stern test Sunday. The Texans' Jacoby Jones is averaging 14.5 yards and has two touchdown returns.

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