Special Teams? Just Average Would Be a Start

In the wake of perpetual struggles in the kicking game, Packer Report looked at the stats. What we found is even worse than you think. They need to improve quickly in every key area in a hotly contested NFC playoff race.

More often than not in the National Football League, the winning team has to win two out of the three phases of the game.

The Green Bay Packers have surged to 7-4 on the strength of the top-ranked defense and the sixth-ranked offense.

The special teams? Well, they're about the worst in the NFL.

Last year in the Dallas Morning News' annual special teams rankings compiled by Rick Gosselin, the Packers ranked 26th in the league. Those rankings took into account 22 segments of special teams, from punt returns to blocked kicks to touchdowns. The all-around futility cost Mike Stock his job.

Using a much shorter list of criteria, the Packers under new special-teams coordinator Shawn Slocum rank a dead-last 32nd when putting together the team's cumulative rankings in kickoff returns, punt returns, field goal accuracy, kickoff coverage and net punting.

While Packer Report's research paints a rather broad brush, the results are pretty accurate. When you take into account the 24 penalties committed by the special teams, a missed extra point, a blocked punt and the big returns allowed on kickoffs and punts, it adds up to a unit that's going to have to improve a lot just to get to mediocre.

"We just need to clean up some fundamentals," coach Mike McCarthy said on Monday. "We have the people here to do it. I'm very confident in our scheme and how we approach it, and our special teams will be a big factor going down the stretch here."

On kickoff returns, Jordy Nelson provided an early-season lift, but that unit hasn't been the same since Nelson exited for a month with a knee bruise after botching a punt. Last week, Nelson's fumble of the opening kickoff spotted Detroit a 7-0 lead. Green Bay ranks 22nd with a 22.2-yard average on kickoffs, and is one of eight teams without a 50-yard return.

On punt returns, Tramon Williams broke a 45-yarder on his first opportunity after Nelson's injury but has averaged 6.7 yards since then and had all sorts of problems fielding the ball against San Francisco. The Packers' 7.9-yard average ranks 23rd.

The kickoff-coverage unit was tremendous to start the season — including a brilliant effort against Minnesota's Percy Harvin in Week 4. But that group has faltered, in part because of a rash of injuries that led to lineup changes on a weekly basis. The Lions broke a pair of 38-yarders last week, Josh Morgan had a 76-yard return to spark a comeback the week before and Harvin's two long runbacks helped the Vikings win at Lambeau Field. That early-season work is but a memory, with opponents' average starting position of the 29-yard line ranking 30th — a woeful figure considering kicker Mason Crosby ranks 12th in the league with 10 touchbacks.

Mason Crosby is 1-of-5 from 50 and beyond.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
"We've done some really great things, but it seems like every once in awhile there's one breakdown and we get exploited a little bit. We're a very talented special teams," Crosby said.

The punting unit averages a league-worst 33.5-yard net average. To put that in perspective, Oakland's league-best net average is 44.7. Just by being smack-dab in the middle, the Packers would gain almost 5 yards of field position on every punt. There have been six punts blocked in the league all season. One was at Tampa Bay, which helped the Buccaneers spring a big upset. While Jeremy Kapinos has been OK as the punter, Green Bay ranks 28th in covering punts.

On top of that, kicker Mason Crosby has made 76.9 percent of his field goals, a figure that ranks 22nd in the league. While he's 15-of-15 from 39 yards and in, he's 4-of-6 from 40 to 49 yards and 1-of-5 from 50 and beyond. In a league in which an above-average kicker makes 85 percent of his kicks, Crosby has never connected on better than 80 percent in a season.

"Anything inside of 50, I've been drilling this year," Crosby said. "I feel like I've been hitting the ball well. I haven't really been mis-hitting it. It's just been off-line occasionally on some of those long ones."

In an NFC playoff free-for-all that includes Philadelphia (third on punt returns, first in punt coverage), Atlanta (sixth on kickoff returns, eighth in punt coverage, ninth in kickoff coverage) and the New York Giants (average across the board) competing with Green Bay for two wild-card spots, this is an area the Packers must improve. So far, they've been winning on offense, defense and turnovers. Against better teams, the Packers' strengths will be mitigated and the opposition won't be as careless with the ball.

"Our margin of error is going to need to be a lot less than it has been in the first 11 games because it's December football now," McCarthy said. "This is the most important football that we'll play all season."

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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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