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Special teams have led the way

Posted Oct 4, 2012

Two gadget plays on special teams have helped the Packers to their two victories thus far, but they’re not the only reason Mike McCarthy called special teams the Packers’ most productive phase in the first quarter of the season.

There’s plenty to like elsewhere, too, as punt returner Randall Cobb ranks sixth in the league with a 15.4-yard average, including a 75-yard touchdown, and punter Tim Masthay ranks 10th in the league in net punt average at 42.1, only a yard away from the top five.

Opponents have averaged just 6.2 yards per punt return, putting the Packers’ coverage unit fifth in the league, while Masthay has placed 11 of 19 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, with only two touchbacks.

As Green Bay’s offense took until Week 4 to regain the rhythm it played with a year ago, the special teams have certainly helped mitigate potential damage from all the fits and starts.

“The thing I feel the best about is our punt coverage production,” Special Teams Coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “You have to give up the ball on fourth down, and to be able to generate as much positive field position for our defense, that’s been strong.”

The kickoff units don’t rank as high but have been plenty respectable as well. Cobb is 13th on kickoff returns at 25.6 yards, while the coverage unit is 26th, though it hasn’t given up a return longer than 38.

The solid all-around play results from a combination of factors in the coaches’ eyes. A couple of years ago, McCarthy and Slocum simplified the scheme, reducing the playbook volume, and then last year they pushed some of the key special-teamers forward to be leaders on the units.

That has fostered what McCarthy termed “an attitude” that has changed the way players approach special teams on this squad.

“Frankly, before it was pulling teeth with some individuals in the past to perform at a high level on special teams,” McCarthy said. “That hasn’t existed here in a couple years. It’s a whole different dynamic.”

Similarly, Slocum refers to “an environment of accountability” that comes from player-centric leadership, and he sees it not only on the field but also in the film room when plays are reviewed and discussed.

“Guys don’t want to let their partners down,” Slocum said. “Players don’t want to let the guy they play next to down, and peer pressure can be a very positive thing.

“I see John Kuhn and Brad Jones, Ryan Taylor and Jarrett Bush, those guys continually are demanding that the play be right, and it makes my job as a coach more effective, and we just have to continue to do it.”

The next step may be to bust Cobb loose on a kickoff return, though opportunities can be hard to come by with so many kickoffs boomed for touchbacks now. Cobb ranked second in the league with a 27.7-yard average last year, which he began with that electrifying 108-yarder for a score in the opener.

Slocum said Cobb was close to breaking free on the opening kickoff last week, when he faked a reverse to Sam Shields, and some of the Saints coverage players did indeed chase Shields. Later in the game, he ran a kickoff back from the goal line to the 34, his longest thus far in 2012.

“There were some big plays out there,” kicker Mason Crosby said. “We’re doing a good job, getting good field position, but I think we can do better, and guys see that, and they want to get better and get some big plays.”

Blocking for a potential game-breaker like Cobb reinforces that accountability across the unit, Slocum said, so it could be just a matter of time.

“That’s the thing I’ve emphasized here lately is that we have a bunch of guys doing a bunch of good things, and we’ll have one breakdown,” Slocum said. “We have to get that fixed, where they all get it done, and with that we’ll have a chance to make a big play.”

Not just of the gadget variety, either.

Additional coverage - Oct. 4
 
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