Step Backward For Special Teams

Bad kick returning, bad kick coverage, bad hands are all bad omens with eight games against top special teams on the schedule. At least Mason Crosby made a field goal.

Coach Mike McCarthy is paying more than mere lip service to the numerous flaws that made the Green Bay Packers' special teams a laughingstock last season.

Daily practice time has approximately doubled, allowing special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum to not only work on team concepts, but individual areas such proper blocking technique. More meeting time has been dedicated to special teams, as well.

It all looked so promising during last week's Family Night Scrimmage, but Slocum's crew took its lumps on Saturday night. Facing the Browns, who fielded the best special teams in the NFL last year according to the annual compilation of 22 kicking-unit categories by the Dallas Morning News' Rick Gosselin, the Packers were outclassed. It was a troublesome development for a team that plays eight games against special teams units that ranked in the top 10 last season.

Last week, Brandon Jackson returned the first kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown against a scout team. On Saturday, he managed only 18 yards.

Last week, the No. 1 coverage units looked strong. On Saturday, the Browns averaged 26.5 yards per kickoff return and 16.5 yards on two punt returns.

Last week, Chris Bryan and Tim Masthay both looked like potentially above-average NFL punters. On Saturday, the inconsistency that was evident on the practice field last week continued.

Last week, the returners caught everything in sight. On Saturday, Sam Shields dropped a kickoff and muffed a punt for a turnover, and Pat Lee momentarily muffed a kickoff return.

"Well, I'm going to go watch the tape so I can tell you more accurately," Slocum said. "I think we need to sharpen some things up. I saw some good individual efforts. I thought the punters were solid. We've got to do a better job of catching the football, that's obvious. The holding was solid. I thought Mason (Crosby) was solid on the kickoffs."

There was some good news. Crosby made his only field-goal attempt, a 33-yarder to put the Packers in front in the fourth quarter, and had one touchback and bombed another kickoff 7 yards deep into the end zone. Masthay's opportunity to pin the Browns into a hole couldn't have been executed better, with his high punt kept out of the end zone by Charles Dillon and downed by D.J. Clark at the 5-yard line.

That's about all of the good news, though.

The Packers returned four kickoffs, with Quinn Porter's 22-yarder the best of the night. Shields was dropped after a return of just 13 yards — he didn't have a prayer because of the poor blocking. Three punt returns covered a grand total of 5 yards.

The coverage units were abysmal, on both kickoffs and punts, and the punting wasn't up to snuff at the end of the game. Putting those two together, Masthay's low 44-yard punt with about 1 minute remaining was returned for 15 yards. Thus, the Browns needed just one first down to get into range to kick the winning field goal.

Finally, the Packers need to stop the Shields experiment on returns. There's a reason why he was moved from offense to defense for his senior season. There's a reason why he never returned kicks in college. Shields' hands are horrendous. His turnover on a punt late in the first half would have given the Browns at least a field goal if not for rookie quarterback Colt McCoy's boneheaded decision to throw a softball into double coverage.

It's easy to see why the Packers are enamored with Shields' return ability. He runs like the wind. Maybe down the road, he'll be a legitimate option. Let him work on fielding kicks after practice. Practice and the preseason games are too valuable to be wasted on someone who can't be trusted.

"Not long, because the season's approaching," Slocum said when Packer Report asked how long the team is going to fool around with Shields. "We'll address that and we've got to move forward with our return position. That's something we'll take a close, hard look at."

As positive as the results appeared last week, what unfolded on Saturday shows the Packers are a long way away from fielding a special teams capable of matching up with Buffalo in Week 2 (No. 3 in Gosselin's rankings), Dallas in Week 4 (No. 4), the Jets in Week 8 (No. 5), Chicago in Weeks 3 and 17 (No. 6), Minnesota in Weeks 7 and 11 (No. 9) and Miami in Week 6 (No. 10). And that's not including Philadelphia, with lethal DeSean Jackson returning punts in the opener.

"Preseason's a challenge because we want to play a bunch of guys, so the continuity of the units was not there tonight, Slocum said, as if the Browns didn't play a bunch of young guys. "Guys individually, that's what I'm interested in seeing is if they're playing good technique."

Chances are, they weren't. Chances are, those fundamentals will be an emphasis when practice resumes on Monday.


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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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