Kickoff Units Going Through Ups And Downs


LB Spencer Havner makes a tackle on Jacksonville KR Brian Witherspoon last Sunday.

After the Packers hit a rough patch with their kickoff coverage unit in back-to-back games against New Orleans and Carolina, special teams practice periods the following week went back to emphasizing very fundamental drills.

Looking as though they had traveled in time back to training camp workouts, the special teams players worked extensively on things like positioning, blocking, getting off blocks, and such.

The back-to-basics approach appears to have paid dividends the past two games, as the kickoff coverage unit allowed Houston and Jacksonville an average of just 19.5 yards on eight returns, with none longer than 28.

"I think it helped," special teams coach Mike Stock said. "We've got so many young guys and we've had some changeovers during the course of the weeks that we're talking about, that we were better (doing) reinforcements. Some of these guys forgot where they began, if you will, and when you progress to a certain point in the season, sometimes you have to rehash those basic fundamentals again."

In fact, only once in the last two games has the opponent begun a drive after a kickoff beyond its own 35-yard line. And Jacksonville didn't begin a single drive after a kickoff beyond its own 30.

The improvements came after some costly breakdowns against the Saints and Panthers the previous two weeks. In Week 12, New Orleans' Courtney Roby broke a 62-yard return late in the first half that set up a field goal and allowed the Saints to grab the halftime lead.

And then the next game, the Panthers' Mark Jones posted three long returns of 42, 51 and 45 yards to give Carolina great field position following kickoffs. All three eventually led to touchdowns for the Panthers, the last two coming in the critical fourth quarter.

That dropped the Packers' kickoff coverage unit from 13th in the league down to 25th in average yards allowed per return, but they've climbed back to 19th the last two weeks.

The Packers face another major test in that area this week against Chicago. Danieal Manning has supplanted Devin Hester as the Bears' No. 1 kickoff return man, and last week against New Orleans he was a difference-maker.

Manning returned the opening kickoff 83 yards for a touchdown and returned a second-quarter kickoff 52 yards to the New Orleans 41-yard line, setting up a short field for another Chicago touchdown. That accounted for 14 of the Bears' 27 points in their overtime victory, and Manning was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week.

Manning actually took over Hester's job in the first meeting with the Packers this season, on Nov. 16. He returned three kickoffs in the fourth quarter for an average of 27.3 yards, including an impressive 29-yard weaving run after a very short kick, getting the ball out to midfield.

"That certainly caught everybody else's eye and caught the head coach's eye for the Bears," Stock said of Manning, whose 29.3-yard average on 26 returns easily outpaces Hester's 21.9-yard average on 31 tries.

"This is going to be a big-time challenge for us. We've always known they've got more than one guy. Manning is bigger and has a different running style that we have to contend with, and that will be a big chore for us, no doubt about it."

Equally big a chore for the Packers will be getting their own kickoff return game going. Unfortunately, the increased emphasis on fundamentals that seems to have taken hold on kickoff coverage has not translated into the same improved results on kickoff return.

Since Week 9 at Tennessee, when Will Blackmon and Jordy Nelson posted kickoff returns of 32 and 40 yards, respectively, the Packers have had just one kick return longer than 26 yards, a 31-yarder at Minnesota in Week 10.

In that stretch of six games since the Tennessee contest, a combination of poor returns and penalties has forced the Packers to begin their 30 drives following kickoff returns at an average of just the 23.5-yard line. That includes a string of 11 straight, following Blackmon's 31-yard return to the 41-yard line at Minnesota (which led to Mason Crosby's missed field goal in the final seconds), that began shy of the Green Bay 30.

"I'm frustrated and disappointed, because certainly we have a couple of pretty good returners back there, and we're not blocking the way we need to block," Stock said. "It's always one guy here, one guy there.

{sportsad300}"We're not on the same page enough, not consistent enough, with our blocking and the execution of that blocking, to get a guy free. But the most disappointing thing is we're not averaging near where we should be to get the ball back to good field position for the offense to start."

The worst of those poor kickoff returns came at times when the offense needed that boost the most.

Against Carolina, following the Panthers' final touchdown to take a 35-31 lead with 1:30 left, Blackmon took the kickoff 1 yard deep in the end zone and was swallowed up at the 17-yard line. Then last week at Jacksonville, after the Jaguars scored with 1:56 left to jump ahead 20-16, Blackmon fielded the ensuing kickoff at the goal line and was buried at the 16. Both drives resulted in game-ending interceptions.

The recent slump has dropped the Packers to last in the league in kickoff return average, and with just two returns all year of 40 yards or more, that's only half the league average of four. This week's opponent, Chicago, leads the league in that category with eight.

"It's got to be a discipline thing," Stock said. "Right now we're playing very sloppy in that particular element. It's got to be better. It's got to be more in tune with the things we're trying to preach about fundamentals and techniques. That's the only way we're going to get it done, to do it the right way."

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