Special Teams Go From Asset To Major Weakness

After a promising first four games to the season, the Packers now rank in the bottom half in all five major categories and have had alarming breakdowns during back-to-back losses. All of that in time to see Dallas' stellar kicking units.

Through the first quarter of the season, the Green Bay Packers' special teams ranked as a slight positive and were leaps-and-bounds better than the atrocious units fielded last year under Mike Stock.

In new special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum's first four games, the Packers were impressive returning kickoffs (25.6-yard average) and covering kickoffs (22.6 average) but struggled returning punts (4.2-yard average) and covering punts (net average of 33.1). Mason Crosby was 7-of-9 on field goals, with the misses from 49 and 55 yards.

Four games later, the Packers are struggling in every facet.

It's been a near flip-flop on kickoffs, with a 22.5-yard average on returns against a 24.8-yard average allowed. The Packers still can neither return a punt (6.1 average) or cover a punt (net average of 32.6). Crosby is 14-of-18 on field goals, with three consecutive misses from beyond 50 yards.

To put it into perspective, the Packers now rank in the bottom half of the league in all five of those major categories. They're 17th in kickoff returns, 26th in kickoff coverage, 24th in punt returns, 32nd in net punting and 22nd in field-goal accuracy (78 percent).

Throw in a missed extra point, a blocked punt, a stunning 18 special-teams penalties (including 11 for holding) and a kicker who remains below 80 percent on field goals for his career, and you've got a unit that is putting the offense and defense into too many tough situations.

On Sunday at Tampa Bay, Clifton Smith's 83-yard kickoff return gave the Buccaneers life after they had fallen behind 28-17. That was the third long kickoff return in the last two weeks against the Packers.

"You can't just go out and say you're not going to play man coverage. It's the same thing with kicks," Slocum said on Monday. "You just can't say we're not going to kick the ball deep, because then you give them field position closer to midfield. That's not winning football."

Of course, the game might have been well in hand at that point, but the normally assignment-sure John Kuhn blew the protection on Geno Hayes' blocked punt, which Ronde Barber returned for a touchdown to tie the game at 14.

"Football is about the team who can be most consistent and make the least mistakes," Slocum said. "Those teams usually win. In that situation, John made a mistake and it's something that we've talked about. He's been doing (that job) for three years for us."

And while Smith and Minnesota's Percy Harvin have had long kickoff returns — on the heels of the Bengals' Quan Cosby's two long punt returns in Week 2 — the Packers' return game has been horrendous.

Without Jordy Nelson, who averaged 29.3 yards on seven kickoff returns before suffering a knee sprain, the Packers have averaged 19.5 yards on kickoff returns (not including a couple of squibs that produced short runbacks). Ahman Green has averaged 21.8 yards but was replaced by Tramon Williams for the opening kickoff of the second half at Tampa Bay because Slocum thought Williams' quickness would put him in position to pop through some holes he had seen develop in the first half. Instead, Williams dropped the ball, came out of the end zone anyway and was dropped at the 2-yard line.

Last year, with Will Blackmon returning two punts for touchdowns, the Packers ranked fifth in the league with a 10.8-yard average. This year, Blackmon (torn ACL) and Nelson are out, and Williams hasn't had a ton of running room since his 45-yard return against Detroit.

Slocum, though, sounded an optimistic note.

"In three games, Tramon has had two punts where he broke out and was very close to being touchdowns," Slocum said. "If this, that or the other had occurred — there's a small margin for winning, losing; getting it done, not getting it done — but had those two punt returns that he broke out been touchdowns, we'd be talking about Tramon going to the Pro Bowl right now. There's a fine line for success in this league because everything's so similar — the players and the schemes are so similar. I think Tramon's got a lot in front of him. I think he's got the potential to make some big plays. We just have to work hard in front of him and give him a chance to get started."

This would be a good week to start. The red-hot Cowboys — under first-year coordinator Joe DeCamillis — rank 22nd in kickoff returns (21.9 average), second in punt returns (14.0 average and two touchdowns by Patrick Crayton), tied for fourth in kickoff coverage (20.4 average), third in net punting (41.8 average) and 18th in field goals (82 percent).

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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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