Special Teams 'Further Along'

While this reporter sees nothing to hang their hat on, special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum sees reasons for optimism. The facts are ugly, with a statistically inferior kicker, untested punters and questions at returner and the coverage units.

On offense, the Green Bay Packers set a franchise record for points and led the NFL in fewest turnovers.

On defense, the Packers led the NFL in stopping the run for the first time in franchise history and paced the league in turnovers forced in a remarkable turnaround under new coordinator Tom Capers.

So, while those two units clearly are of championship pedigree, the third phase of the team is a wreck.

While coordinator Shawn Slocum was quick to disagree with the notion, his special teams have absolutely nothing to hang their hat on entering this season.

Clutch and reliable kicker? Not so much, with Mason Crosby's 76.0 percent accuracy last season sending his career mark down to 78.0. Last year, among kickers with at least one attempt per game, Crosby ranked 23rd in the league.

Proven punter? That's laughable. While Tim Masthay and Chris Bryan have NFL-caliber legs, neither has even performed in a preseason game.

Field-changing kick returner? Not unless Will Blackmon comes back better than ever from a torn ACL. Last year, he averaged a respectable 23.3 yards per kickoff return and a woeful 3.7 yards per punt return. In 2008, Blackmon averaged 21.0 yards per kickoff return but ranked ninth with a 11.1-yard average on punt returns and two touchdowns.

Top-notch coverage units? Not really. The Packers ranked 18th in kickoff coverage with a decent 22.8-yard average return and 22nd in punt coverage with a 10.8-yard average return.

Just plain being smart? Not with a league-high 30 penalties — including 14 holds and four illegal blocks.

We will go into depth on some of these topics later this week after we talked to Crosby, Masthay and Slocum during the recent minicamp. While the outlook looks bleak, Slocum sees a revival as he enters his second season as coordinator. He said Crosby is kicking the ball better than ever. He said more consistent punting and improved hang time will cure the punt-coverage woes. He sees options as the returners. He sees a strong supporting cast. Large segments of both minicamp practices were dedicated to special teams, whether it was live kicking periods or one-on-one blocking periods. The high school officials at the practice were told to be nitpicky in their supervision of those drills.

"My thoughts are as a large group, we are much further along than we've been in the time that I've been here — the five years I've been here," Slocum told Packer Report. "What we did is identified the things that we need to work on and developed a plan in the offseason and spring and we started working on it. The guys have really taken it and excelled in terms of fundamentals and technique, and I expect us to play very good, very sound special teams."

Teams can win without those "very sound" special teams. The Packers ranked 31st in the 22-category Dallas Morning News special teams rankings. The Super Bowl-champion Saints ranked 29th and the runner-up Colts 28th. However, division winners Dallas (fourth), San Diego (seventh), Arizona (eighth) and Minnesota (ninth) ranked in the top 10.

Last year, Green Bay finished 11-5, one game behind Minnesota in the NFC North. Had the Packers not yielded two long punt returns against Cincinnati, a long kickoff return and a blocked punt against Tampa Bay and a long kickoff return against Minnesota, they very well could have won the division and earned a first-round bye.

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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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