Gameday Notebook: Kickoff Unit Takes Hit

Packer Report publisher Bill Huber empties his tape recorder and notebook in time for today's game. What went wrong on kickoff coverage last week? Why are the rebuilding Buccaneers changing quarterbacks? That and much, much more!

How good was the Packers' kickoff coverage before last week's disastrous performance against the Vikings?

Heading into Sunday's game at Tampa Bay, Green Bay still ranks a respectable 15th.

In the opener, Green Bay bottled up Chicago's Danieal Manning and Devin Hester, and it continued with Cincinnati's Andre Caldwell in Week 2, St. Louis' Danny Amendola in Week 3 and a superb performance against the Vikings' electric Percy Harvin at Minnesota in Week 4.

"I think we started off really well," special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. "Got into the fourth ballgame, we're outstanding against Minnesota. Went into Detroit and we're very good there. And then went to Cleveland, and on the very first kick, Brett Swain had a chance to hit Cribbs inside the 20 — that's where he hurt his leg — he wasn't able to explode through the move so he didn't make the tackle."

Harvin, however, got his revenge last week with two long kickoff returns that were turned into short touchdown drives. Not only was Swain out, but safety Derrick Martin was lost to a concussion. Will Blackmon suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first game against Minnesota and Korey Hall injured a half in that game. That's four vital special-teams cogs out of the lineup, and another, Tramon Williams, was having his snaps rationed because of his role at cornerback and as the replacement punt returner.

"We went into the game the other night and had some more changes," Slocum said. "We had four different guys covering at one particular time than we had the first time we played them. The unit, to me, we didn't play in sync in that ballgame."

Harvin entered last week's game with two touchdown returns. Slocum said his players weren't scared of him. He did, however, say they played "cautiously."

"If you're decisive and you're the first guy down there, even if you don't make the tackle, you dictate where the ball is run," Slocum explained. "So, the man trailing you sees where that ball is going and now he has a better chance. If you go down there and throw on the brakes and give the returner two options, now the guy behind you, it's not clear where the ball's going."

That's what happened on Harvin's first long kickoff return. It appeared Spencer Havner slowed down and was head-up with a blocker. That gave Harvin the option of going left or right.

"I saw some times where we got into the middle of a blocker," Slocum said. "Anytime you trade off one for one, you're getting the returner the advantage because he's got options on which way he runs the ball on. If I were to go to one side or the other, it dictates where he runs the ball."

Hey, Rookie

During a sensational career at Kansas State, quarterback Josh Freeman hooked up early and often with Jordy Nelson to break the passing records of another player with Packers ties, Lynn Dickey.

On Sunday, Freeman will make his first NFL start against the Packers.

The 17th pick of the draft, Freeman got the seal of approval in 2006 by Kansas State's young defensive coordinator, Raheem Morris. Morris, at the ripe old age of 32, was named the Buccaneers head coach in January.

"He's been really awesome," Morris, now 33, told Packers beat reporters in a conference call on Wednesday. "Everybody knew about the strong arm. Obviously, I had the ability to know about his knowledge of the game that a lot of people didn't know about, but when he got here, he shocked our coaches, our ownership and also a lot our management people. I had already known a little bit about him from Kansas State, how he came as a freshman and how he prepared and some of those things.

"He just brought it the same way he did when he got to Kansas State, when he was able to take over the job as a freshman kind of in a similar situation — halfway through and lead our team to a couple victories there at Kansas State, and watched him develop and watched him mature from Game 1 to Game 2 and to the end of the season. I watched him progress after I left and become the leader of that team and really be the reason they had a chance to win any game. Now he brings that presence here to Tampa, and we look forward to him leading us to a couple of wins. Look forward to him leading us throughout the future."

Morris' logic for the change, after striking out with Byron Leftwich and Josh Johnson, was simple.

"In this game, the quarterback is about wins, it's about trying to produce wins, and right now we don't have any," Morris said.

Ready or not, the Freeman Era begins on Sunday, as he takes over an 0-7 team with the NFL's 28th-ranked offense.

"Yeah, I mean it's one of those things where I've been waiting a long time to get some regular-season action and I've been preparing," Freeman said in his own conference call. "It's tough to say you're a hundred percent ready for anything in this league, but I know I'm prepared."

Being prepared has not been easy for Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Freeman has played in only one game in the regular season, completing 2-of-4 passes in mop-up duty against New England in London.

"The biggest thing is the unknown," Capers said. "When we put together a tape, we got to study the guy for about 20 passes through preseason and all that. We know, coming out, there's a reason why the guy's picked in the first round. He's big, he's a good athlete, he's got a strong arm, all those things. It's not like we're sitting and studying him on tape all week — we've been looking at another quarterback."

Packers coach Mike McCarthy came away impressed after watching some of Freeman's college film during the scouting process and talking to him at the Scouting Combine.

"I think he is a big, strong kid that is a football player," McCarthy said. "You like the way he plays the game, not only the ability to run it and throw it. I think he is going to be a good pro."

Havner's hands


Havner joins the fans after one of his two touchdowns.
Scott Boehm/Getty Images
During the weekend of the final roster cuts, Spencer Havner didn't get out of bed. Didn't eat. Didn't do anything until he realized his spot on the roster was safe.

After three years as a linebacker on the Packers' practice squad, Havner has caught three touchdown passes the last two games as a tight end.

"I don't sit back and think about it like that so much," Havner told a horde of reporters this week. "It's day to day for me. Overall, when I look back at it, it will probably be a pretty cool story to sell to somebody."

Havner was one of the best linebackers in the country at UCLA, but he was recruited by schools like Utah and Nevada after being a "pretty good" tight end in high school in Grass Valley, Calif. On the practice squad, Havner often pulled double duty by playing tight end.

Turns out he was pretty good.

"Absolutely. That's where it started," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "From the first day when he was on our practice squad, he was on our practice squad as a linebacker, but just like (current practice squad linebacker Cyril Obiozor), he runs all the tight end routes. Your receivers play DB, your offensive linemen play defensive linemen, that's a very common practice in the NFL because of your numbers, especially this time of year with the injuries. He would go over there and he'd catch everything. He obviously had a natural ability, a knack for playing the position."

During the offseason, McCarthy broached the idea to Havner of playing offense.

"He just asked me if I wanted to play tight end and linebacker and special teams and try to play a backup tight end role and that would help me make the team," Havner recalled. "He also said, ‘We don't pick our team in the spring, so you're going to have to make it happen.'"

Havner turned out to be a pretty good tight end during training camp and made the team. He hasn't spent practice time at linebacker since camp. His touchdown binge, coming in Jermichael Finley's absence, shows he's more than just a blocker.

"I'm really enjoying it. It's fun," Havner said. "I really like playing tight end. I couldn't have predicted it, but this is where it is."

Building something


Raheem Morris seeks his first win on Sunday.
Elsa/Getty Images
Shortly after the 2008 season ended with a 9-7 record, the Buccaneers fired coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen, replacing them with Morris and GM Mark Dominik

The new regime is enduring plenty of growing pains. Not only are the Bucs 0-7, but they've been outscored by a more than 2-to-1 margin (203 to 96).

They're using a bottom's-up mentality to building the roster.

"You want to get wins, you want to make the team better and you want to establish your identity of who you're going to be," Morris said of the team's vision for this season. "Our program is going to be built through the last end of this season. We've got to continue to improve the bottom end of our roster. This team will be driven by the bottom up, and we've got to continue to do that. Our top-end players have to get better, but the only way they get better is if they're driven by the guys from the bottom up. The 53rd man on your roster, at the end of the day, has to push your No. 1 guy. If he doesn't, your team has no chance to get better or to improve. That's what we look forward to doing."

Asked about his top players, Morris mentioned last year's No. 1 pick, cornerback Aqib Talib, who has four interceptions. Linebacker Barrett Ruud ranks eighth in the NFL in tackles. In three games since returning from a four-game substance-abuse suspension, safety Tanard Jackson "has been absolutely stellar," in Morris' words, with two interceptions. Defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson has a team-high 5.5 sacks. Offensively, tight end Kellen Winslow, with team highs of 31 receptions and four touchdowns, has been a "splash player." Running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams is being eased back into things after playing in only 10 games the last two years with a torn patellar tendon. He has 301 rushing yards and a 4.1-yard average.

"We've got really inspired play from Cadillac Williams," Morris said. "Coming back off of those injuries, nobody really expected anything from him. All he did was work in the offseason, he's worked during the season and his running ability has been limited a bit by me and really our coaching staff, because we don't want to put him out there too much. He's shown us more and more every week that he's getting stronger and stronger and ready to carry the load."

Potential blowout?

For all of the Packers' big-game problems, the consensus is they will have no trouble beating up on the Buccaneers.

The Packers have faced three of the dregs of the league this season, stomping St. Louis, Detroit and Cleveland by a combined 93-20 — an average margin of victory of 24.3 points.

Served up on the Packers' tarnished silver platter are the Buccaneers, who enter Sunday's game with an 0-7 record that includes five games decided by 13 points or more. They'll be using their third starting quarterback of the season. They rank 28th in the league in scoring offense, 28th in scoring defense, 28th in total offense and 28th in total defense.

If nothing else, they're consistent.

The oddsmakers have installed the Packers as 10-point favorites.

"These are very dangerous games," McCarthy said. "I know me personally, and I'm not going to speak for any other coach or anybody in the building. These games to me are harder. Everybody looks at numbers, you look at film, you look at their final scores, and you think well, we should win this game. It's a terrible mind-set to even talk about. I can't believe I'm even talking about it or saying it. But it's the reality of your business."

Going Green

When Ahman Green returned kickoffs last week, it was his first time in that role in a game since 1999 and first time doing it at all since practice in 2000.

"It was positive, no steps backward for my progress and getting back and actually playing football," Green said Friday. "It was a good day, but it would have felt better had we gotten a victory out of it. Minnesota won the special teams battle. They definitely won the field position battle."

On offense, he carried the ball twice for 1 yard but showed some explosion with a 12-yard reception that started with a broken tackle and ended with him doling out some punishment.

"I thought he did a nice job last week in what we asked him to do," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "He's always been great in checkdowns and in the screen game. I gave him a 2-yard pass with a guy on him and he turned it into a 12-yard game. That's the kind of stuff he does. He makes plays when he's got a chance. I think he, as the weeks go on and he gets into better shape, I think his role will continue to grow."

Added running backs coach Edgar Bennett: "I think the most important thing for him and for us is he just wants to play."

Four-point stance

— With Rodgers sidelined on Wednesday and Thursday with foot injuries, Matt Flynn got all the first-team reps.

"The snaps that Matt Flynn has taken the last two days are invaluable for any quarterback," McCarthy said. "Anybody that's played the position knows how hard it is to get snaps during the season. In-season snaps are very precious for a quarterback. This has been great work for Matt. I actually thought he had a very good day today. He's throwing the ball with more velocity. It's nice to see the improvement that he's made from year one to year two. The ability to throw with more velocity, playing with his feet, his time clock has definitely picked up. I thought he did a lot of good things today."

— The Packers have a league-low five turnovers. All have come in the passing game, with Rodgers throwing two interceptions and losing two fumbles and Ryan Grant fumbling after a completion.

— At 4-3, the Packers are tied with the Falcons and Bears for seventh place in the NFC standings. The Giants, at 5-3, are in sixth place and hold the last wild card position.

"We've put ourselves in a tough spot. We've got nine games left. Two games back, plus a tiebreaker, but we're still confident in where we're at. Obviously you want to win the division first, but now we put ourselves in a difficult spot. We've got to go to Tampa and get a win. We'll be two back with eight to play and we've got to win them all," Rodgers said.

— Teams are on pace to score 582 touchdowns, which is only 11 behind the record 593 scored in 2002. Green Bay has contributed 21 touchdowns. That's tied for 10th in the league.


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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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