Got It Covered? Harvin Awaits

The injury-riddled Packers special teams faces another enormous challenge in electric Vikings rookie Percy Harvin. Harvin leads the NFL in kickoff returns while the Packers rank ninth in kickoff coverage. Get the inside scoop from both special-teams coordinators.

From the frying pan and into the fire.

Last week, the Packers' special teams had to deal with Cleveland's electric Josh Cribbs. On this week's docket, it's the Vikings' dazzling Percy Harvin.

Other than a cruel twist by the folks who produce the NFL's schedule, how do you explain that?

"I was good enough to coach in the NFL. That's the answer to that question," Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said on Thursday.

"Outstanding guys, outstanding players," he added. "I really like the way they play. They've obviously been very productive. It's a real challenge for us, but I'll tell ya, that's part of the fun of the game to see what we can go do each week against these guys."

Cribbs already has surpassed Pro Football Hall of Fame candidate Eric Metcalf as the best returner in the storied history of the Browns. With eight career touchdowns — including one on a punt and one on a kickoff this year — Slocum thought keeping Cribbs out of the end zone and preventing him from setting up a touchdown was a victory.

Harvin, the Vikings' first-round pick, has returned two kickoffs for touchdowns and leads the NFL with a 29.8-yard average. His latest touchdown came last week against Pittsburgh, when he burst through a brief seam in the Steelers' coverage, dodged the kicker and was gone.

"Some guys got blocked, and Percy hit it going north and south, and when he does that, he's got great speed and explosion," Slocum said. "That's the challenge is keeping him from having the ability to go north and south."

The Packers passed that challenge during the first matchup against the Vikings. Mason Crosby kicked off four times, resulting in one touchback and three returns that netted just a 17.3-yard average.

The "north and south" that Slocum mentioned is what makes him so dangerous. On a kickoff, the coverage unit runs down the field in one giant line. If that unit is pierced, a player with Harvin's speed can go the distance. There's no secondary providing a last line of defense, like if a running back gets past the defensive line and linebackers.

On Harvin's 102-yard kickoff return against San Francisco, for instance, he took the kick to his left, cut once to his right and ran straight for the final 85 yards. No dancing. No jitterbugging. Just one cut and off to the races.

"That is a hard thing to teach a guy," Vikings special-teams coordinator Brian Murphy told reporters in Winter Park on Thursday. "That really takes a lot, and I think Percy has that knack and understands if you can push the ball downfield quickly you got a better chance than going side-to-side.

"You learn pretty fast that everyone on the field is fast. If you go sideways, guys will track you down. It's different than college, where wide receivers are so much faster than a linebacker, speed-wise. There are guys that are running down that football field that can catch you if you go sideways. The tough tackle is when you are going downhill trying to tackle someone head-on. That presents a big problem. There is a ton of speed on the field, and if you go sideways, somebody is going to track you down."

Adding to the Packers' challenge is the rash of injuries. Not only was Will Blackmon a good kick returner, but he was strong in coverage. With each performance by Brett Swain, it became apparent why the Packers chose him over veteran receiver Ruvell Martin. Safety Derrick Martin hasn't practiced all week with a hamstring injury. Fullback Korey Hall injured a calf in the first game against Minnesota and is still out. Tramon Williams, who has replaced Blackmon as the kick returner, needs his special-teams snaps monitored because of his importance as the nickel cornerback.

"It goes back to how we began in the spring, preparing everyone to do what we want to do schematically," Slocum said. "When one guys goes down, the next guy steps up. It wasn't that long ago that everybody was questioning why Brett Swain was on the team. It showed up on how well he played prior to his injury. I think it's important that when the next guy steps in, he's expected to do the same things from a schematic standpoint and a production standpoint. So, we'll move forward, and whoever we trot out there, I expect them to do it right."


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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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