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Special Teams Look To Finish Strong

Posted Dec 14, 2010

Somewhat lost in the frustration of a disappointing loss in Detroit last Sunday was a solid outing by the Packers’ special teams units.

It’s no guarantee of success to come, with the final three regular-season games being played outdoors and in cold weather, beginning this Sunday at New England. But the way punter Tim Masthay, kicker Mason Crosby and the coverage units performed in their final climate-controlled game nonetheless should serve as a building block for the stretch run.

The most impressive outing was turned in by Masthay, who averaged 50.5 gross and 43.4 net yards on eight punts. He started his day with a booming 62-yarder that, even with a 15-yard return by Detroit’s Stefan Logan, resulted in a 47-yard net, and he went on to place three straight punts in the second quarter inside the 20, with two fair-caught and one angling out of bounds.

“I thought his performance was outstanding,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “His first six punts were very, very good. Huge hang time, distance and net punt. I thought that really helped us stay in the ballgame from a field-position standpoint.”

If there’s one punt Masthay would like to have back, it was probably early in the fourth quarter. Punting from the Green Bay 43-yard line, Masthay tried to kick an end-under-end Australian-style punt to pin the Lions deep, but the ball stayed flat on his drop, according to Slocum. Without the end-under-end spin, the punt sailed 57 yards for a touchdback, and though that was still a tolerable net of 37, an opportunity to continue his inside-the-20 work from the first half was lost.

Still, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, Masthay actually became the first punter in franchise history to average better than 50 yards in a game with at least eight punts. It was a strong recovery after some struggles in the windy conditions at Lambeau Field the previous week, when he posted a net of just 33 yards on three punts, though that was better than San Francisco’s Andy Lee that day (32.4 net).

“One of the things we talked about after that is you’re not going to always have a perfect drop when the wind is blowing, so you really have to power through the football,” Slocum said. “The punting on both sides in that San Francisco game, the net punts were down, in the 33-yard range, but he outperformed his opponent, and I think that’s really important in these types of games.”

Masthay’s punting, as well as two solid kickoffs from Mason Crosby, helped the Packers contain the speedy Logan in the return game. Logan came into the contest ranked No. 1 in the league in kickoff return average (28.8) and No. 4 in punt return average (12.4), and the Packers held him under both of those averages.

It started on the opening kickoff, when fullback Quinn Johnson brought Logan down at the Detroit 16-yard line after just a 20-yard return. He later managed a 35-yard kickoff return that Slocum felt should have been stopped about 10 yards sooner, but overall the 27.5-yard average wasn’t damaging, which is ultimately the goal when facing one of the league’s top performers.

Logan also managed one 15-yard punt return, on Masthay’s career-long 62-yarder, but he averaged just 9.3 yards on four attempts and had to fair-catch two.

“I think we went in there from a game-management standpoint and said let’s don’t let Stefan Logan affect us in a negative way in terms of a return for field position, and I thought for the most part we did that,” Slocum said.

“I think his production, his numbers, have confirmed he’s a really good returner. He’s got excellent balance, very good toughness, quickness, acceleration, and he’s a hard player to defend.”

Logan was a good test with returners like New England’s Brandon Tate (who has run back two kickoffs for touchdowns this year) and Chicago’s Devin Hester (who took a punt back for a score against the Packers in Week 3) still ahead over the final three weeks.

Crosby’s leg seems no worse for wear at this late stage of the season. His first kickoff in Detroit went 4 yards deep in the end zone, and his 42-yard field goal in the third quarter was good by plenty.

Crosby has more experience kicking in cold weather than Masthay does, and Slocum said both will continue to take plenty of practice reps outdoors from here on out. Crosby did miss a 29-yard field goal against San Francisco two weeks ago, the first miss of his career inside 30 yards.

But that had nothing to do with the weather and was the result of a protection breakdown, and he recovered within that game to hit from 43 yards on his next attempt.

Crosby also effectively mixed long kickoffs with intentionally short ones in the windy conditions, helping to limit the 49ers to a 14.3-yard average on seven returns.

“Mason’s done a great job kicking in these cold-weather games, so I think whoever we play we’re going to have an advantage there,” Slocum said.

 
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