Launching Point? Special Teams Start Strong

From Mason Crosby to the punters to Brandon Jackson, Shawn Slocum's units impressed during Saturday's Family Night Scrimmage. The promising results come as coach Mike McCarthy has placed a larger emphasis on the kicking and return units this summer.

If the Green Bay Packers' special teams make a difference this season — you know, the good kind of difference — the takeoff point very well could wind up being Saturday's Family Night Scrimmage.

Mason Crosby split the uprights, unlike last season.

The punters kicked the ball high and far, unlike last season.

The returners caught the ball and found running room, unlike last season.

Special teams periods were sprinkled throughout the scrimmage, which is a carryover from what's taken place during the first week of training camp. Last year, a typical practice included 10 minutes of special teams. This year, the special teams period runs for 15 minutes, with extensive work on individual drills, and a 5-minute period later in practice.

"It was obvious that there was an emphasis on special teams," coach Mike McCarthy said. "We were able to get a number of field goals kicked, both with the No. 1 field goal and field-goal protection. Also we wanted to create an environment for our punters to continue to compete with the emphasis there in the last segment. We definitely accomplished that. There will be a lot of quality film for us to grade and move forward in the training-camp process."

Crosby showed continued signs that he's broken out of an early funk by drilling 7-of-8 field goals, including kicks from 51 and 53 yards from the hold of punter Tim Masthay. His only miss was from 44 yards, though that was on a shaky hold from punter Chris Bryan.

That the performance came in front of about 47,000 fans at Lambeau Field rather than the cocoon of the Don Hutson Center was especially meaningful, considering the number of Doubting Thomases in attendance. Hearing the boo birds wouldn't have been a good starting point for a kicker who hasn't progressed since leading the NFL in scoring as a rookie.

"Yeah, it's a scrimmage, but it's Lambeau, we have the fans, everyone coming out and watching. It's a game-like situation, we have to perform," Crosby said. "That's what people want to see. It was good to come out here and hit the ball well and see that the operation is as sharp as it needs to be. That's the main thing. We're working really hard on it and making sure it's as solid and consistent as we can possibly have it. It's early in camp still, and we're moving along. This was a good night to get moving forward."

Crosby is coming off a miserable season in which he made just 28-of-38 field goals, including the playoffs, and missed five times at Lambeau. The season started well enough, with 11-of-13 accuracy in the first five games, but he finished 17-of-25. He missed a kick in eight of his final 11 games — or 8-of-10 if you discard the Tampa Bay game, when he didn't have an attempt.

Crosby has had to pick up the pieces by doing double duty. Not only has he had to focus on himself and his mechanics, but he's had to train two new holders. Masthay has some experience, dating to his college career at Kentucky, but Bryan has been imported from Australia and is learning all the nuances of the American game.

Crosby sees the positive in that after struggling with punter Jon Ryan as a rookie in 2007 (79.5 percent), punter Derrick Frost and quarterback Matt Flynn in 2008 (79.4 percent) and Flynn and punter Jeremy Kapinos in 2009 (75.0 percent).

"We can kind of mold and work together so that it gets perfect for all of us and make sure that we're comfortable all together as a unit," Crosby said. "I said it early in camp: We have to earn that trust. We've got to work on it and make sure that operation's flawless. Tonight was as close as we've been. We need to keep sharpening up. As we move onto this week, it just needs to keep getting sharper, each preseason game and each week and make sure that we're as perfect as we can be."

Of the holders, Crosby and Masthay seem to have the best connection, their 0-for-2 start to training camp notwithstanding.

"I think that the whole process between Brett and Mason and myself is progressing," Masthay said. "I hope Mason's starting to get more comfortable. He hit some great balls tonight."

The punters provided another positive sign. Each got five attempts, with Bryan earning the statistical edge with a 50.4-yard average compared to 47.0 for Masthay. Both had 62-yard bombs. The scrimmage ended with each punter kicking with the line of scrimmage at the 1-yard line, the 35, midfield and the opposing 45. In the backed-up situation, Bryan nailed a 56-yarder, with Masthay answering with his 62-yard blast. In their pooch-punting opportunities, Bryan's punts garnered fair catches at the 9- and 5-yard-lines compared to Masthay's 10 and 11.

"I thought they did well," McCarthy said. "That's what we wanted. We wanted to try to create as close as we possibly can to a true game atmosphere, put pressure on them from the four areas on the field, and I thought they handled it very well. It's going to be a very good competition. They're both very talented. I have no question that we are so much further ahead than we've been here the past two years just with the individual ability at the punting position. But as we all know, it's all about performance, and we're trying to create that environment to test these guys from a performance perspective as much as we possibly can."

To up the ante, McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson watched the punters from behind the formation.

"It's funny because people would think maybe punting in front of 70,000 people is the intimidating part or the part that gets your heart going," Masthay said. "Really, with Mike and Ted back there, that gets my heart going more a lot of the time. It's good because it makes you really, really focus all of the time."

A third reason for optimism was Brandon Jackson, who returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. While it came against a scout kickoff team, the return was well-blocked and Jackson hit the gas when he found a lane up the right sideline. It was an eye-popping display from someone who was probably third on the depth chart behind Will Blackmon (out as he rests his surgically repaired knee) and Jordy Nelson (out after being injured on a long reception early in the scrimmage). Moreover, Jackson has never returned a kick in the NFL and had shown absolutely no big-play ability as a runner or receiver in his first three seasons.

Plus, the No. 1 coverage units had no trouble corralling the scout team returners.

All in all, it was a promising first step for a special teams unit that was horrific across the board last season. The Packers' special teams ranked 31st in the league last year. Next week will be a great measuring stick. Behind returner extraordinaire Josh Cribbs and special teams guru Brad Seely, the Browns posted the NFL's top unit.


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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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