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Mike Spofford

Mike Spofford has worked as a sportswriter in Wisconsin since 1995 and has been a packers.com staff writer since 2006. He has covered the Packers' last two Super Bowl appearances, XXXII and XLV.

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Kicker, punter showdowns on Sunday

Posted Dec 8, 2011

As a successful kicker-punter duo, Green Bay’s Mason Crosby and Tim Masthay aren’t recognized on the same level as Oakland’s Sebastian Janikowski and Shane Lechler, but the Packer tandem's arrow is pointing in that direction.

“If they can ever be viewed in the same terms as Sebastian and Shane, that’s pretty lofty company,” Packers Special Teams Coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “Those guys have been outstanding for a long time.”

Both Janikowski and Lechler once again are in the midst of impressive seasons heading into their game with the Packers at Lambeau Field on Sunday, and the two draftees from the class of 2000 seem to be getting better with age.

Janikowski appears to be having a career year, with 22 field goals in 24 attempts (91.7 percent), including five of six from 50-plus yards.

Lechler leads the league in gross punting average at 50.8, the second time in three years he’s been above 50. With a net average of 40.4 (tied for seventh), he’s above 40 in that category for the fifth straight season.

“They’re two of the best ever,” said Slocum, who coached Lechler in college at Texas A&M. “I think they’ve proven that already.”

Both Crosby and Masthay said this week they can’t let themselves get distracted by who their counterparts are on the opposing sideline on Sunday. Their concerns are with the Raiders returners, not the kickers.

It would no doubt be a feather in their caps, however, to come out on the positive end in the battle of some of the league’s strongest legs.

“We want to go out there, especially in our home stadium, and take care of our business,” Crosby said. “We’ll sort it out after the game, and see how we matched up.”

Interestingly, Crosby’s career statistics on field goals resemble those of Janikowski’s, albeit with seven fewer years in the league. Neither kicker has an eye-popping conversion percentage (Crosby 79.7, Janikowski 79.6), but that’s partly a result of their power, because both have tried numerous long kicks – an average of five per season each from 50-plus yards.

To their credit, both are better than 50 percent from 50-plus (Crosby 12-of-23, Janikowski 34-of-62), which makes their numbers from less than 50 yards solid, and very similar. Crosby is at 84.4 percent for his career from under 50, while Janikowski is at 84.7.

Crosby enters Sunday’s game on a personal high note. Even though he has missed two field goals in his last three games, he is still putting together his best year, with 19 makes in 21 tries (90.5 percent), including a franchise-record 58-yarder. His walk-off 30-yarder to beat the Giants last Sunday was his first game-winner in four attempts since his rookie debut in 2007 as a sixth-round draft pick.

“Anytime you can go out and execute that as a unit, particularly with Mason, it builds confidence,” Slocum said. “If we have that opportunity the rest of the season, we’ve been there and done it this year.”

Masthay’s game has been on the rise, as well. He was named “NFC Special Teams Player of the Week” for allowing no return yards and placing four of five punts inside the 20-yard line against the Giants.

He put four of five inside the 20 the previous week at Detroit, as well, and after a bit of a slow start this year, his net average over the last six games is an impressive 44.2 yards. The league leader for the entire season is San Francisco’s Andy Lee at 43.3.

“Hopefully, we can keep it going,” Masthay said of the punt team. “The snapping and protection has been good like always, the gunners are playing great and I’m hitting the ball well. You put all those things together, it makes for a productive punt unit, and we’ve been doing that for a while now.”

Dealing with so much cold weather late in the season, it will be difficult for Masthay to ever approach Lechler’s lofty numbers. There’s a reason the Green Bay career franchise record for gross average is just 42.8 yards, held by Craig Hentrich.

But consider this: Masthay, in his second season, is just 38 punts shy of compiling enough attempts to qualify for the team’s all-time list, and his career gross average now is 44.3. Last year’s net average of 37.6 tied the franchise record (the stat has been kept only since 1976) set by Jon Ryan in 2007.

Slocum credited the undrafted Masthay for making a “rapid ascent” in his management of the pro game, which requires more precision and situational punting than the swing-away college ranks.

“He takes care of his body so well that he appears to get stronger as the season goes on, and I think that’s a good quality for a pro,” Slocum said. “You don’t want to go the other way at the end of the year. You need to be at your best.”

That’s what the Packers are counting on from both of their strong-legged specialists as the weather turns colder. Crosby and Masthay worked out inside Lambeau Field on Wednesday this week to continue their adjustments.

Masthay, in particular, shined a season ago in the poor, late-season weather, and repeating those efforts could go a long way for the Packers with potential home playoff games looming.

“We know it’s going to be cold,” Crosby said. “You just have to get your mind right, battle through it, and try to hit the ball as cleanly as possible.”

Injury update: Cornerback Charles Woodson has been medically cleared following his concussion and was a full participant in Thursday’s padded practice.

Neither of the starting inside linebackers, A.J. Hawk (calf) nor Desmond Bishop (calf), practiced on Thursday, though Head Coach Mike McCarthy isn’t ruling out Hawk, who is further ahead in his rehab. He said even if the sixth-year veteran doesn’t practice on Friday, he could still play on Sunday.

Running back James Starks (ankle/knee) also didn’t practice for the second straight day. McCarthy said if Starks doesn’t practice on Friday, he won’t play.

Also, outside linebacker Vic So’oto was added to the injury report with a back injury and missed practice. It’s a recurrence of his back injury from earlier in the season.

Additional coverage - Dec. 8

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