GREEN BAY—It’s a magic number of sorts for a punt team, a 40-yard net average.
It’s a target the Packers haven’t hit in three dozen years of tracking the statistic, but they’re on pace to do so in 2012 for the first time as they head into more tough weather down the stretch.
A third-year pro, Masthay is putting together his strongest and most consistent season to date, but he is the first to admit it’s not just him.
“It’s our best year as a unit, too,” he said. “A punter doesn’t make a great punt team. A punter is part of a great punt team, but coverage and protection are just as big.”
The unit has dealt with its share of personnel changes due to injuries, but it has more than held up. The Packers are allowing only 4.9 yards per punt return, third-best in the league, while the longest return on the year is just 20 yards, and that came in Week 1. Since then, only two punt returns have surpassed seven yards.
“It’s production by everybody,” Special Teams Coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “The tackles are spread around. We are covering fast. That’s the key. You have to run under the ball and get down there before the return can get set up. We’ve done that for the most part.”
It all starts with Masthay, who has rewarded the coaching staff’s patience with him during an up-and-down first season in 2010. He came on strong the second half of that campaign and there have been no worries since.
With his hang time and directional punting, Masthay has considerably limited the opponents’ opportunities. Only 18 of his 59 punts have been returned. The game-by-game net average this season has dropped below 36 yards only once, when Houston blocked a punt late in the fourth quarter of a Week 6 blowout.
Masthay also has become especially adept at pinning opponents deep with his end-over-end Aussie-style pooch kick. He has placed 28 punts inside the 20 this season, already his career high and very close to the franchise mark of 30 set by Sean Landeta in 1998. Like net average, punts inside the 20 have been tracked since 1976.
Giving credit again to his coverage team for downing the ball and/or forcing fair-catches, Masthay has placed an astounding 47 percent of his punts (28 of 59) inside the 20 against just five touchbacks. For comparison, Landeta’s percentage in ’98 was 46, with seven touchbacks.
“There’s just a solid group of guys that I think pay attention to details, give it focus and energy, and the coaching has been excellent,” Masthay said. “We have clear purpose every week, and Coach Slocum is a high-energy guy, so he brings that to the room, too.”
There’s no lack of energy this week with record-setting Chicago return man Devin Hester on deck. Hester, who has an NFL record 12 punt-return TDs in his career, is in a bit of a slump, not having brought one back since Week 10 of last season, a drought of 20 games. Hester has had only one punt return this season longer than 24 yards.
Masthay and the Packers won’t be lulled to sleep, however.
“Shoot, I remember my rookie season, first time I ever played against him, he hadn’t busted one in a while and he returned a touchdown,” Masthay said. “He had five or six touchdowns that year. Nothing for granted.”
That was Masthay’s third game as a pro, Week 3 of 2010, and Hester hadn’t found paydirt in more than two full seasons until that Monday night at Soldier Field. When he did, he helped the Bears get their only win over the Packers in the last eight meetings between the rivals.
It was an early lesson for Masthay that he’ll be judged by how well he and his unit work together to affect field position. Both he and the group have come a long way since then.
They’re on a roll of late, too. Over the last four games, only five of Masthay’s 15 punts have been returned, for a grand total of one yard. That has helped keep the net average right at the magic number, but the season’s not over, yet, not with Hester and plenty of cold weather coming up.
“It’s been good, it’s been solid, and it needs to stay that way for the length of the season,” Slocum said. “You’re only as good as your last punt, so we have to continue to be productive.”Additional coverage - Dec. 13