Breaking It Down To Eliminate Breakdowns

A back-to-basics approach to special teams had only a minor impact in Saturday's preseason opener, but coordinator Shawn Slocum is optimistic that it will pay big dividends this season. The new approach was evident at Tuesday night's practice.

Rome wasn't built in a day.

Nor will the Green Bay Packers' special teams be fixed in one preseason game. But months of extensive work on the little things give the kicking units a chance to turn things around after a horrendous performance last season.

The Packers' special teams finished 31st in last year's Dallas Morning News rankings. They ranked dead last in penalties, next-to-last in opponent starting point after a kickoff and net punting, 28th in opponent net punting, 25th in field goal percentage and 24th in punt coverage.

That's a lot to fix. To do so, the team has taken a back-to-basics approach.

By now, you've probably heard that each practice has gone from about 10 minutes of special teams work to 20. What they're doing with that extra time was on display during Tuesday night's practice.

A kickoff return drill started with one-on-one matchups, with the blockers having to maintain their blocks for 4 seconds before disengaging and sprinting to "block" a big dummy meant to simulate that final block needed to spring a touchdown. From there, the kickoff return units ran through their plays on air, first the front five blockers and the "rover," who is stationed about 10 yards behind them. Then, the four-man "posse" went through their steps on air. The goal was to get the timing down and make sure each player wound up in the right spot at the right time. Finally, after all of that, the full return unit worked against a full kickoff team.

Last year, by contrast, most of a special teams period would focus solely on the 11-on-11 work.

For all the warts that showed up on Saturday against Cleveland, there were some encouraging signs that showed that Slocum and coach Mike McCarthy are on the right path. For instance, none of the three special-teams penalties against the Browns were for holding or illegal blocks. Instead, the flags were for easily correctable things: two for leaving the line of scrimmage too soon on a punt and one for briefly having too many men on the field.

"I feel good about that," Slocum said on Tuesday of the no penalties for illegal blocks. "Go back to when the NFL referees were here for three or four days two weeks ago, we had none in practice, and then in the first ballgame we had none called. So that part, I think, that's in a positive direction with the effort and work that we've put into it."

The big picture, however, wasn't as rosy. The Browns won the punting battle with a net average of 41.8 yards compared to a net of 38.5 for Chris Bryan and Tim Masthay. The Browns — who didn't use returner extraordinaire Josh Cribbs — returned only two punts but for a total of 33 yards. The Packers, who were without returner Will Blackmon, returned three punts for merely 5 yards. On kickoffs, the Browns' average starting position was the 24.8-yard line compared to the 20.6 for the Packers.

Part of that is the nature of the beast this time of year, though. Like every team, the Packers have been battling an avalanche of injuries, which ruins any chance of having continuity with, say, the No. 3 kickoff team or the No. 2 punt return. When watching the film, Slocum said he was more concerned with how each individual did on a given play than the end result of that play.

"It is one game and it is preseason, no different on offense and defense. You're trying to accomplish a lot of things, and even more so on special teams," McCarthy said. "Kickoff coverage was disjointed. A lot of that was we played 30-plus players on kickoff coverage. We have never done that here. We're trying to look at as many different individuals as possible. We exhausted our whole depth chart in the kickoff phase, and I think it showed up in the production in the kickoff coverage and the kickoff return. We want to make sure we get everybody an opportunity and give them a chance because special teams is where a lot of these jobs are going to be won."

As the preseason progresses, McCarthy and Slocum will start to trim the rotation, which should help. The Packers' top special-teams players last year included Desmond Bishop, Derrick Martin, Spencer Havner and Jarrett Bush, and fullbacks Korey Hall and John Kuhn were mainstays, too. Asked about this year's core guys, Slocum mentioned Brandon Jackson, Brett Swain and James Jones as additions to last year's core group.

Jones, for instance, lined up with the No. 1 group on the four key areas on Tuesday: punt, punt return, kickoff and kickoff return. The Packers love his combination of strength and speed from everything to being a gunner on the punt team to a potential punt blocker on the return unit.

Throw in the promise of the two punters and that kicker Mason Crosby has found a groove with Masthay holding (Bryan will hold at Seattle), and there is an obvious silver lining in what appeared to be a dark cloud after Saturday.

"We've gotten a lot of individual work," Slocum said. "Going back all the way when we started in March and through the OTAs and through training camp, we've really emphasized individual technique, position skill development on special teams, and I think we'll see the byproduct as we move through, get to the 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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