Skip to main content

'Dog' mentality drives Packers' flyers in punt coverage

Keisean Nixon and Rudy Ford have instilled swagger into Green Bay’s special teams

CB Keisean Nixon & S Rudy Ford
CB Keisean Nixon & S Rudy Ford

GREEN BAY – It was Pat O'Donnell's name and Pat O'Donnell's likeness, but the graphic might as well have had the rest of the Packers' punt-coverage team on there, too.

After discovering he'd been named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week for the first time in his eight-year NFL career, O'Donnell wasn't taking any victory laps around the locker room because of the five punts he dropped inside the 20-yard line during a 14-12 win over Tampa Bay on Sunday.

Instead, surrounded by a small group of reporters, O'Donnell glanced over to his flyers, Keisean Nixon and Rudy Ford, on the other side of the locker room and deflected the credit.

"It's a huge accomplishment, obviously," O'Donnell said. "I think it's important here just making those steps that we're trying to (make) on special teams, and I can't give enough credit to the punt team and the guys outside. Rudy Ford and Keisean Nixon are doing a great job for us."

There's perhaps no better example of the positive step the Packers have taken under new special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia than the productivity of Green Bay's punt team through the first three games of the 2022 season.

Working in concert with Ford, Nixon and the rest of the punt coverage team, O'Donnell currently ranks second among his peers in punts inside the 20 (nine), tied for third in fair catches (six) and fifth in net average (45.2 yards per punt). Comparatively, the Packers forced just 17 punts inside the 20 and 12 fair catches in 17 regular-season games last season.

Just one of O'Donnell's punts has been a touchback…and it came on a 72-yard punt against Chicago that tied O'Donnell's career long.

This past Sunday, the Packers' ability to pin the Buccaneers deep in their own territory went a long way in picking up a tough road victory. While the speedy Ford had a coverage tackle and forced a fair catch, O'Donnell and Nixon also combined on a downed punt at the Tampa 2-yard line in the third quarter.

"You guys can feel those guys getting down there, both Keisean and Rudy," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "They forced a lot of fair catches. Obviously, Pat had an amazing day punting the football. Just their ability to get down and win their one-on-ones or win a double-team on the outside made a huge difference in our punt unit."

As much as the signing of O'Donnell back in March has helped bring stability to Green Bay's retooled special teams, the 31-year-old punter is the first to admit the addition of Nixon and Ford has made punting life considerably easier.

Nixon was one of the first additions the Packers made after Bisaccia's arrival. The 5-foot-10, 200-pound cornerback had 18 coverage tackles in three seasons with Bisaccia in Oakland/Las Vegas.

Nixon also has been the Packers' next-man-up at cornerback since the offseason program. In addition to his 16 special-team snaps against the Buccaneers, Nixon played 57 snaps at nickel cornerback after Jaire Alexander tweaked his hamstring.

Meanwhile, Ford was signed at the start of the regular season. The special-teams stalwart has long been regarded as one of the league's preeminent outsider flyers (or gunners) on punt coverage due to his combination of speed, size and tenacity.

"He's aggressive. Honestly, that's what we need in that room," said O'Donnell of Ford. "With Keisean, it's awesome to have two guys. Sometimes, you only get one of those special-teams players on the unit but we're fortunate to get both of those guys."

Nixon was thrilled when he found out Ford was coming to Green Bay. The 6-foot, 200-pound safety isn't just fast – he was clocked at 4.34 at his Auburn pro day in 2017 – Ford also is proficient at splitting double-teams from jammers.

The former sixth-round pick has registered 30 coverage tackles in 59 regular-season games, including a career-high 11 in 2020. While speed and physicality help win outside, sometimes it's as simple as who wants it more.

"You've got to have dog in you," Nixon said. "There ain't nothing to it. It's like a want-to thing."

There are a lot of things you can point to for the improvements the Packers have made on special teams under Bisaccia, but the most transformative element could be the unit's mentality.

That burning desire to win can be seen in Ford, Nixon and Dallin Leavitt, who is currently tied with linebacker Tipa Galeai with a team-high three coverage tackles. The fifth-year safety also was a core member of Bisaccia's units with the Raiders.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has taken notice of the changes. Everything feels a little different – in a good way. And it all starts with the heart-and-soul pillars Green Bay has acquired.

"We have three legitimate teamers, I would say," Rodgers said. "Ford, and you watched him as a gunner, showing up multiple times. Dallin, who flies down on kickoff, plus he's a coach on the field, getting everyone lined up and then Keisean.

"That's three legit teamers who can all in their own right probably play on defense but really bring a lot to the teams and it ups the entire focus and energy and approach to special teams."

This Sunday, the unit affectionately known inside the building as the "Wefense" faces its stiffest test of the season when the Packers play host to the New England Patriots, who are led by special-teams aficionado Bill Belichick and tout 10-time Pro Bowler Matthew Slater.

The no-nonsense Nixon likes where the Packers' special teams stand. In a way, it almost reminds him of last season with the Raiders when punter A.J. Cole was named to the Pro Bowl in just his third NFL season.

Now with the Packers, Nixon wants to propel his new punter to that stage, too.

"I like Pat," Nixon said. "My last punter was a Pro Bowl guy. We're going to send Pat to the Pro Bowl, too."

Related Content