Field Position Works Against Packers In Defeat

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Special teams coordinator Mike Stock (center) gives final instructions to a special teams unit before it takes the field.

Dating back to the start of last season, more often than not the Green Bay Packers have won the battle of "hidden yardage" that's a part of each and every game on special teams.

The team's rise from last in the annual Dallas Morning News special teams rankings in 2006 to seventh last year is proof of that, as is Will Blackmon's key punt return for a touchdown in the season opener this year.

But last Sunday night against the Dallas Cowboys, the hidden yardage went the other way for the Packers, and it proved costly in the 27-16 defeat.

From penalties on special teams plays, to a couple of low punts, to a struggle to find running room on returns, the Packers were somewhere around "minus-174" in field-position differential against Dallas, according to Head Coach Mike McCarthy in his Monday press conference.

McCarthy admitted that a chunk of that, "probably 50-60 yards," came when the Packers failed to legally recover a late onside kick and gave the Cowboys the ball at the Green Bay 34. But that still left more than 100 yards on the wrong side of the ledger, and it clearly hampered the team's effort to defeat one of the league's top clubs.

"We've been very good, but all those things talked about are going to bite you, and they did (Sunday) night," special teams coordinator Mike Stock said. "It makes a huge difference, the starting position for you and for the opponent.

"We're basically a unit that's supposed to be cohesive and putting the offense and defense in better field positions by our coverage and return aspects, and if we don't do a good job of that, those two elements will suffer, and it was a difficult situation to put them in a couple of times."

Two sequences in particular damaged Green Bay's attempt to win the field position battle.

The first came late in the second quarter. Dallas had just taken a 10-6 lead on Felix Jones' 60-yard touchdown run, and in an effort to prevent a momentum-shifting return by Blackmon, the Cowboys lofted an intentionally short kickoff that bounced around the 20-yard line.

Blackmon misplayed it initially, went back to pick it up on the 10, and managed just 3 yards on the return. That forced the Packers to start on their own 13-yard line when someone simply catching the kickoff around the 20 would have advanced it to at least the 25 or 30.

Immediately thereafter, following a three-and-out, the Packers were punting from their own 20 when Derrick Frost hit a low line drive that traveled just 37 yards. The Cowboys' Adam Jones returned it 7 yards to midfield for a net of just 30, and Dallas needed only two first downs to get in easy field-goal range at the end of the half.

Frost was disappointed in that punt, as well as another low kick later in the game. After a strong season opener against Minnesota, Frost feels he has let the coverage units down a few too many times since then.

"I'm just not hitting the ball the way I want to hit it," said Frost, who through three games is tied for second in the NFC in gross average (47.4) and ranks fourth in net average (40.6). The coverage really did a great job, and I feel I put them in a bind a couple times. I'm not going to hit them all great, no one does, but against 'Pacman' (Jones) I can't hit two balls like that.

"I'm just not getting enough hang time right now. I'm driving the ball too much. I just need to work on some things this week and come out and have a better week next week."

The other costly sequence came at the end of the third quarter. The Cowboys were about to start another drive near midfield when they started going backwards.

A penalty on the punt return pushed them back 10 yards, a tackle for loss by defensive end Cullen Jenkins on running back Felix Jones cost them 5 more, and penalties for intentional grounding and a false start moved them all the way back to their own 15 to punt.

Trailing 20-9 at the time, the Packers were hoping to come out of the sequence with strong field position to get one of the two scores needed to erase the deficit.

But Dallas punter Mat McBriar boomed a 65-yarder, forcing Blackmon to field the ball in a hasty backpedal. By the time Blackmon got his momentum going back upfield, he found little room and got just 6 yards on the return. On top of that, rookie tight end Jermichael Finley was penalized after the play for unnecessary roughness, pushing the Packers all the way back to their own 13.

{sportsad300}Even a solid 40-yard net by McBriar would have set up the Packers at their own 45-yard line to start the drive, but the great punt, poor return and penalty cost the offense 32 yards. After one first down, the Packers punted again, and Dallas answered with the game-clinching TD.

"There was a big exchange of yardage there from where he would have been as opposed to how it ended up," Stock said.

The night wasn't a total loss on special teams by any means. Mason Crosby drilled three of his five kickoffs into the end zone, and the Cowboys averaged just 19.3 yards on three returns. The kicking unit also came within a whisker of getting that onside kick, but the officials ruled Tramon Williams touched the ball just before it went 10 yards when he recovered it, resulting in a penalty and Dallas getting the ball.

But that was one of four penalties on special teams during the game for the Packers, compared to two for the Cowboys, and the flags seemed to bother Stock the most. Finley's penalty was one of three on the return units in the game. The Packers also were flagged for holding on two kickoff returns in the second half, including twice on one of the returns, wiping out a 43-yard runback by Blackmon.

"There's no question the penalties hurt us," Stock said. "When you talk about hidden yardage and field-position wise, it wasn't a matter of coverages, our team's coverage and the kicking necessarily. It was all that plus the penalties heaped on us. Those are choices that our players have got to do a better job making, in terms of aggressive play. They have to make good decisions, too."

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