For Will Blackmon, kick returning was either feast or famine last season.
The feasts came on punt returns, where Blackmon was "Will the Thrill" as one of only four players in the league to have multiple returns for touchdowns.
The famines came on kickoff returns, where the thrill was gone as the main character on the NFL's bottom-ranked unit.
Fortunately for Blackmon and new special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum, the NFL has rewritten the rulebook for kickoff returns. Banned for safety purposes are the wedge-blocking schemes employed by practically every team in the league. Without wedges — three or more players blocking in tandem like a snow plow rumbling down the highway — teams figure to use more man-to-man blocking schemes. That will make kickoff returns more like punt returns, an area where Blackmon ranked ninth in the league last season with an 11.1-yard average.
"The bottom line is we've just got to get a blocker on a defender," Blackmon said. "That's pretty much what it is. I don't really see much change. We'll still be able to do double teams and stuff, and that's pretty much the big thing for most teams is the double team. There's ways around it. That they're taking it away isn't going to completely mess everything up. Shoot, it might help us."
It couldn't hurt. In Mike Stock's three seasons as special teams coordinator, the Packers finished 32nd in kickoff returns in 2008, 22nd in 2007, 31st in 2006. Blackmon and Jordy Nelson both had 45-yard kickoff returns. Only two teams had shorter long returns last season.
The struggles predate Stock, though. They ranked 32nd in 2005, 25th in 2002, 31st in 2001 and 29th in 1999, with sporadic moments of greatness in 2003 (fifth, with Antonio Chatman and Najeh Davenport), 2000 (third, with Allen Rossum) and 1998 (first, with Roell Preston) in the last decade.
"I'll tell you, kickoff return is productive when 11 guys are doing their job," Slocum said. "I think we've got very talented returners here. We've got guys who can be impactful, but it takes 11 guys. One of the things we've got to emphasize is our technique in blocking, and we're going to do that and we should see an improvement in that area as a result."
That focus on technique was evident during the offseason practices. Only rarely did the return unit run through a drill at full speed, and rarer still were live reps against a coverage unit. Most of the time was spent with Slocum demonstrating the nuances of man-on-man blocking, done at a snail's pace rather than a jackrabbit's pace. Blackmon said Slocum's teaching simplifies the nuances of the return.
"It's just a matter of technique for everyone, including the runner," Blackmon said. "That's all. Everybody has the ability. We have a great scheme. It's just a matter of people being disciplined and doing their techniques correctly."
And if those techniques are done correctly, the Packers could use the new rules to their advantage. With wedge blocking, it was apparent which way the kickoff returner was going to run — behind the wedge. With man-on-man blocking, the plan of attack isn't so obvious. That should keep the kicking unit spread out and mean more open spaces for Blackmon to use the start-and-stop skills that have made him a terror on punt returns. That's the theory, at least, but it all boils down to the blockers doing their job.
The Packers generally used a four-man wedge last season. With wedge blocking eliminated, not only will the blocking scheme look different, but so will the alignment. Without giving away too much, the Packers had only one deep man — generally Blackmon, but also Tramon Williams and Pat Lee during the minicamp — with five men at various depths behind the front line.
Those blockers can't just be big bruisers, since man-on-man blocking requires more athleticism than simply lining up in a wedge and hitting whoever crosses your path. That meant, on the No. 1 unit, fullback John Kuhn, center Duke Preston, defensive end Michael Montgomery, offensive tackle Tony Moll and linebacker Desmond Bishop were lined up behind the front line of Lee, Brad Jones, Korey Hall, Brandon Chillar and Ruvell Martin.
"I'm pretty sure we won't have another year like last year," Blackmon said.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.