Cleaning up special teams is Shawn Mennenga’s task

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GREEN BAY – There’s one way Shawn Mennenga can bring instant improvement to the Packers’ special teams.

Get the units to cut down on penalties.

While Green Bay’s new special teams coordinator has more than just that in mind, he clearly indicated on Monday he’s not naïve to what went on with the Packers’ return, coverage and kicking units in 2018.

With tongue only partially in cheek, Mennenga said, “We’re going to beat them over the head with what the rules are” when it comes to dealing with penalties, and he’s going to make presentations, film study and corrections “an ongoing process” to clean up Green Bay’s game.

It could be a tougher task than it sounds for the veteran special teams assistant now in a coordinator role in the NFL for the first time. Mennenga comes to the Packers after jumping to the college ranks last year to get his first major coordinator gig, at Vanderbilt.

The Packers had 26 penalties on special teams accepted against them last season, the franchise’s most this decade. After beginning the season with three penalty-free games in the first four, the Packers had just one penalty-free game on special teams over their final 12 contests, with nine of those games including multiple accepted penalties.

For the record, an additional seven penalties were declined, making for a total of 33 flags on special teams last season.

Having assisted Chris Tabor with Cleveland’s special teams for seven years before the move to Vandy, Mennenga knows as well as anyone there’s a fine line between emphasizing the need for impact plays and risking over-aggressiveness.

“We’re going to play fast, play physical and be relentless, but also play intelligent with good judgment,” Mennenga said. “Guys learn the rules and know when to go try to make a play and when to pull off and be smart.”

A few changes in 2019 could help Mennenga and the Packers walk that line. First, new Head Coach Matt LaFleur is dedicating three coaches to special teams, retaining assistant Maurice Drayton and hiring quality control coach Rayna Stewart, who worked for Mennenga at Vanderbilt, specifically for special teams.

Second, the upcoming season’s reboot – giving everyone a relatively fresh start – should help the Packers end their game of musical chairs at return man and find one or two returners capable of providing some consistency and stability.

Speedy Trevor Davis’ repeated hamstring injuries derailed his opportunity to build on some promising results in the return game from 2017. That factored into five different players returning at least one punt and seven different guys returning at least one kickoff last season.

In the end, a 24-yard punt return (by rookie Jaire Alexander) and a 38-yard kickoff return (by veteran Bashaud Breeland) were the Packers’ longest of the year, and the units were responsible for five lost fumbles. Their opponents, meanwhile, had five total returns of at least 40 yards (three kickoffs, two punts) and lost just one fumble.

Throw in an inconsistent rookie season from punter JK Scott and some missed field goals in the clutch by veteran kicker Mason Crosby, and it all added up to the Packers finishing dead last in longtime NFL columnist Rick Gosselin’s annual special teams rankings, with coordinator Ron Zook being dismissed.

“I’m aware of the history,” Mennenga said. “I’m still familiarizing myself with the roster. It’s been a lot of nights here, watching tape throughout the day. That’s still being evaluated.”

LaFleur mentioned he was drawn to Mennenga through his work with Tabor, who is now with the Bears and previously assisted highly regarded special teams coordinator Dave Toub, who in turn stems from the John Harbaugh coaching tree. Harbaugh, a Super Bowl-winning coach in Baltimore, was a special teams coach for two decades in the college and pro ranks before landing the Ravens’ head job.

A special teams player in college before embarking on a coaching career that has seen him hold any number of positions at small colleges, Division I schools and now the NFL, Mennenga made his first transition to the coordinator role last year at Vandy.

He could have followed Tabor to Chicago but chose to run his own show instead, a worthwhile decision that now has him better equipped for his newest challenge than he otherwise might have been.

“I’ve felt like I’ve been preparing my whole career for this opportunity,” Mennenga said. “To be able to go be a coordinator, even though it was at the college level, it was the SEC and major Division I school.

“At the end of the day, you’re still implementing game plans and leading men. You’re getting them to play hard for you. That was invaluable experience and showed I could hopefully go out on my own.”

The Packers and LaFleur are counting on it, and will be counting the penalties, too.

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