Packers facing toughest task yet on special teams vs. Colts

Indy has blocked-punt TD, kickoff-return TD this season

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Indianapolis Colts linebacker E.J. Speed (45) blocks a punt by Tennessee Titans punter Trevor Daniel (12) in the second half of an NFL football game Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. Colts cornerback T.J. Carrie (38) recovered the ball and ran it back for a touchdown.

GREEN BAY – Head Coach Matt LaFleur hasn't minced words about it all week.

"We're going to have to have our best performance of the season on special teams," LaFleur said referring to Sunday's matchup against the Colts in Indianapolis. "And our guys know that."

It's easy to see where LaFleur is coming from.

Go back a little over a month, and Indy rookie cornerback Isaiah Rodgers returned a kickoff 101 yards for a touchdown vs. Cleveland.

Then a week ago, the play of the game in the Colts' big AFC South victory at Tennessee was a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown. Linebacker E.J. Speed was named the AFC's special teams player of the week for the highlight.

That punt rusher's last name is what the Colts are all about in the game's third phase, and they've used speed not just to make those big plays but provide a steady presence in the field-position game all season.

They're ranked in the top half of the league defending both punt and kickoff returns, and even taking away Rodgers' 101-yarder to the house, he's still averaging 25.6 yards per kickoff return, well above Green Bay's 17.4-yard average.

"They bring him out from deep," Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga said of Rodgers, a sixth-round draft pick from UMass. "Very dangerous. He's a threat every time he touches the ball.

"It's definitely the most complete unit that I've seen so far."

Meanwhile, the Packers need to bounce back from a rough game on special teams in the bad weather last week vs. Jacksonville.

Green Bay surrendered a 91-yard punt return for a touchdown on a play that featured several breakdowns, from a low, line-drive punt, to a coverage player falling down, to not recognizing the Jaguars' blocking scheme, to missing a tackle.

The Packers also started four drives inside their own 15-yard line (three inside the 10) after punts, so there's an urgency to be more sound with when and how to field the ball, as well as block better on returns.

It wasn't typical of how the Packers have performed on special teams, because while they haven't busted any big runbacks, they hadn't been backed up a lot until last week.

"We've won the field-position battle all but a couple games here," Mennenga said. "That's not a sexy thing to talk about but we definitely do need to stop the negative things from happening to us and try to create some positive plays."

The team's best returner, Tyler Ervin, has been in and out of the lineup with injuries, so that hasn't helped the return game. He hasn't practiced this week.

Other injuries and COVID restrictions also have led to last-minute practice-squad call-ups having to perform in games, but the coaches won't use that as an excuse. They assume the responsibility to get everyone ready to play.

Fortunately, the units' biggest letdowns this season – the punt return by the Jaguars, and a blocked punt along with a failed onside kick recovery in Houston – have come in victories and not altered an outcome.

But the Colts have proven they can generate that kind of game-changing impact. Just ask the Titans.

"We're trying to put the best week or practice together that we can and show our guys as much film of Indy as we can," Mennenga said. "They definitely have our guys' attention."

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