With Baltimore (6-5), Chicago (5-7), Pittsburgh (6-6), Seattle (5-7) and Arizona (8-4) rounding out the schedule, the days of facing Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis are long, long gone. With those five teams pretty close to the Packers in talent level, the onus will be on the Packers' special teams to make a positive contribution.
That's something that has escaped the Packers in a few games this season, including an early loss to Cincinnati, midseason losses to Minnesota and Tampa Bay, two weeks ago against San Francisco and last week against Detroit. In tonight's game against Baltimore, rookie Lardarius Webb has the Ravens ranked fourth in kickoff returns with a 25.5-yard average, and they're third in the league in kickoff coverage.
"It's a big five games for us," special-teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. "I look back at the last few games and thought we played really well against Dallas and I thought we played very well against San Francisco — we gave up an explosive return in that game but I thought the body of work helped our football team win. Last week, the way we started, we overcame that as a football team. Our special teams, with the fumble, we had several penalties, we missed a short field goal, those type things are not what we want to do, and fortunately, we were able to overcome that as a team."
The Ravens' head coach, John Harbaugh, cut his teeth in the NFL as a special-teams coach. During a conference call with Packers beat reporters on Thursday, he was asked about special-teams penalties. That's a topic that's pertinent to Green Bay, which has been flagged 25 times on special teams — including 15-4 on kick returns.
"It's very frustrating," Harbaugh said. "Sometimes they're impactful on a play and sometimes they're not. It used to be about seven, eight, nine years ago, if it didn't have an impact on the play, they didn't call it. But that was frustrating too because people would get away with a lot of stuff that you just felt they shouldn't be doing."
Harbaugh attributed the penalties to youth. Most special teams players are in their first couple of seasons in the league. For the most part, those players were the stars of their collegiate teams and may be playing special teams for the first time in their lives. Interestingly, Harbaugh has a what-can-you-do philosophy on the mistakes of youth.
"You can drill it and work it and explain it to them all you want, but until they make those mistakes — and usually it's in critical situations — they don't learn," he said. "Then you're generally rolling through these guys every year. You put a new group of young guys out there and so it just seems like it's a never-ending cycle. I don't know what the answer is but it's obviously very frustrating for everybody."
Slocum isn't one to make excuses for his units' all-around below-average performance. But told of Harbaugh's comments, Slocum said: "I think it's a very real part of the game because your special teams is made up of a lot of your backup position players, in most cases, and a lot of the time, those guys are young guys. Special teams, the level of play in the NFL, is pretty high from a skill level and from the scheme. So the guys have to learn how to do it. The speed of the game is tremendous, and if they're not careful, they can get themselves out of position and they're trying to compete and they get a penalty."
One of the Packers' core special-teamers is third-year linebacker Desmond Bishop. He didn't play special teams at junior college or at California.
"I was just kind of going off of natural ability," he said. "I was a little raw but it's really not too much you can learn. You go through it and get experience. You can always play smarter, and that's been my approach this year. You always play hard, and playing smarter and knowing what to expect is the biggest thing."
Going into the 12th game of the season and with the Packers holding a precarious lead in the playoff race, Slocum needs his young players to come of age quickly and for his veteran players — like Bishop, Jarrett Bush, Derrick Martin, John Kuhn and Korey Hall — to rise to the occasion.
"I think we've shown some signs of very good play," Slocum said when asked for a "big picture" look at his units. "We've been outstanding on kickoffs at times. For example, we're fifth in the NFL on the number of tackles inside the 20. Like I've explained to the group, that's not good enough to make an impactful play and turn around give up an impactful play, so what we're trying to achieve is consistency and it's at a level that helps our football team."
Bishop says the Packers' special teams are better people believe, and they're ready to prove it against the Ravens.
"This week, the word around is they can take advantage of us on special teams," said Bishop, who leads the team with 17 special-teams tackles. "We're looking at each other like, we're competitors, we're professionals. It's almost like we feel threatened. You'll see how we're going to react on Monday."
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