Mixed Bag on Special Teams

Two breakdowns by the punt team against Cincinnati overshadowed what the special teams did right and help cost the Packers a victory.

To say the Packers' special teams played poorly against Cincinnati would be an overstatement. To say the Packers' punting unit played poorly against Cincinnati would be an understatement.

"I was very disappointed," first-year special-teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said this week. "No. 1, we didn't do a very good job spreading out and getting width and converging on the returner. Couple that with a low hang time and the ball down the middle of the field — the returner on the first one, a 53-yard punt had a 20-yard cushion to get started. We can't operate that way. It doesn't work very well that way. The second big return they had, it was much the similar situation except we broke down on the left side.

"It works when you spread out and you build a cage around the returner. If you don't do that and you don't hang the ball high or you don't kick it to the sideline, generally it doesn't work very well. That's something we've got to get done."

For all of the Packers' problems protecting the quarterback and stopping the run, Green Bay might have escaped with a victory had the special teams prevented Quan Cosby's punt returns of 60 yards and 32 yards. The first of the rookie's long returns set up a 6-yard touchdown drive that tied the game at 14 after the Packers had scored 14 consecutive points. The second of the long returns set up a field goal that built the Bengals' lead to 10 points with less than 2 minutes remaining.

So, while Jeremy Kapinos led the NFL in net punting during the preseason, he ranks 31st after two regular season games.

"Had the coverage been exceptional, we would have gotten away with a poor punt," Slocum said. "Had it been a great punt, then we would have gotten away with poor coverage. You can't combine two negatives and come out with a positive."

Kapinos and Slocum went to work this week to get the punter back on track. Kapinos banged several punts off the roof of the Don Hutson Center on Friday.

"We just shortened some things up," Kapinos said. "I just had to eliminate some excess ground I was covering. I've been hitting the ball well, turning it over well, so it's just some minor details every punter works on week to week."

On the other side of the punting equation, the Packers have witnessed kicking clinics the last two weeks by Bears veteran Brad Maynard and Bengals rookie Kevin Huber. Both continually put the ball right at the sideline, giving the Packers' returners nary a bit of breathing room. Against Chicago, Jordy Nelson was able to return only one of Maynard's four punts. Against Cincinnati, Huber punted four times and Will Blackmon couldn't return any of them.

"Any time you can make a returner run sideways, it gives the coverage team the advantage because of pursuit angles," Slocum said.

On the other hand, the Packers rank third in the NFL in kickoff returns with a 26.3-yard average per return. Eight of the nine have been brought back at least 20 yards.

Statistically, the Packers' kickoff coverage team ranks 20th with an average return allowed of 23.9 yards, but that's misleading. Discard an intentionally short kickoff to keep the ball away from Devin Hester late in the Chicago game, and the Bears' average starting position was the 23.0-yard line. It was even better in the Cincinnati game, with the Bengals' average starting position being the 21.3-yard line.

In the two games, two of Mason Crosby's kickoffs have been touchbacks, and the six others (discarding the short kick against Chicago and the onside kick against Cincinnati) have averaged 1.5 yards deep in the end zone.

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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 packwriter2002@yahoo.com, 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.

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