Special Teams in the Spotlight

Special teams are always important in this series. That means the Packers' Will Blackmon, who returned two punts for touchdowns against Minnesota last year, and electric Vikings rookie Percy Harvin will be central figures on Monday night.

Look no further than recent Packers-Vikings history to show the importance of special teams.

When the Packers beat Minnesota in last year's season opener, Will Blackmon's 76-yard punt return for a touchdown was one of the critical plays in the 24-19 victory. Later in the year, the Packers were in position to steal a victory in the Metrodome after Blackmon brought back a punt 65 yards for a touchdown and returned a late kickoff to the 41, only for Mason Crosby to misfire on a potential game-winning field goal.

Special teams figure to be critical when these bitter rivals clash on Monday night. Of the last 15 matchups, only a 34-0 Packers victory in November 2007 didn't come down to the final minutes. Since a 35-13 loss at Minnesota in October 2001, 12 games have been decided by a touchdown or less — including seven by three points or less — and the other two games were either tied or had a lead change in the fourth quarter.

"The field position is hugely important in a game like this," special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said on Friday. "To win this game, we need to win the field position battle."

Special teams were a major pox on the Vikings last year, when they allowed a league-record seven touchdowns.

A few fresh faces have swung the pendulum back in Minnesota's direction.

The first is electric first-round draft pick Percy Harvin, who leads the NFL with a 35.8-yard average on 10 kickoff returns, including a critical 101-yard touchdown against San Francisco last week. Lest you think one big return has ballooned Harvin's average, his other nine returns have averaged 28.6 yards. Nine of his 10 runbacks have gone at least 20 yards.

"Harvin's proven, as he did last week, that he's an explosive athlete and he has what it takes to make a significant difference in the return game," said the Packers' first-round pick, Clay Matthews III, who is a core player on special teams.

The second is Darius Reynaud, an undrafted rookie last year who spent most of his rookie season on the Vikings' practice squad. The 5-foot-9, 201-pound Reynaud returned kickoffs but not punts at West Virginia, though you wouldn't know it by his early success. He ranks second in the NFL with a 17.3-yard average, and two of his seven returns went for at least 20 yards. Slocum noted Reynaud's make-you-miss skills and his north-south running style.

Even if Reynaud doesn't play — he's listed as doubtful with a hamstring injury — Bernard Berrian has a career average of 10.1 yards on punt returns and had a touchdown last year.

The other key new face isn't exactly a new face. Linebacker Heath Farwell recorded 57 special-teams tackles in 2006 and 2007 but missed all of 2008 with a torn ACL. Farwell's back and gives the Vikings an attitude, and he's surrounded with more talent with rookie safety Jamarca Sanford (seventh round) and rookie linebacker Jasper Brinkley (fifth round)

"He's an all-in guy, and I thought they lost their heartbeat a little bit when he wasn't in there," Slocum said of Farwell, calling him a "dynamic" player.

Will Blackmon scores vs. Minnesota lsta year.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Not only are the return teams better, but the kick coverage has improved, too. The Vikings are allowing only 19.3 yards per kickoff return. New Vikings special teams coordinator Brian Murphy, who like Slocum was promoted from an assistant's role after the previous coordinator was fired, is impressed with Packers returners Blackmon and Jordy Nelson.

"They have a lot of speed, they are both strong enough where they can break tackles inside and they are both fast enough to get to your edge, so you have to defend the entire field when those guys have the ball in their hands," Murphy said.

In the Packers' favor is Blackmon working against a Vikings punting unit that ranks 29th in the NFL and has allowed a touchdown. Blackmon is averaging 5.5 yards on only two punt returns this year after averaging 11.1 last year and 13.3 as a rookie.

"It was the culmination of Will doing a great job with the ball in his hands and the blocking was set up in front of him," Slocum said of last year's touchdowns. "Those were two plays, the touchdowns, where everything came together. We had a chance to get started with the ball in his hands. That's one of the things this year, we haven't had much opportunity to get the punt return started. I think the first three punters that we played did an excellent job of keeping us hemmed up on the sideline and not letting us get started."

The marquee matchup, however, will be against the lightning-fast Harvin. Other than the opening kickoff last week against St. Louis, the Packers' kickoff unit has excelled behind good coverage and consistently deep and high kickoffs by Crosby.

"It's important for the whole special teams unit to dominate," said Blackmon, who plays on both coverage teams. "They added more speed to their special teams. It's going to be a challenge."

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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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