The Packers know all about Falcons kickoff and punt return man Allen Rossum, and that's what scares them.
Heading into the 2002 season opener this Sunday having allowed 93-yard and 100-yard kickoff returns for touchdowns over their final two preseason games, the Packers know firsthand that Rossum, who after two seasons in Green Bay left the Packers for Atlanta via free agency this offseason, has all the tools necessary to allow the disturbing trend to continue.
"With a returner like Rossum, there's no margin for error," said Matt Bowen, a member of the Packers' special teams units who was also Rossum's counterpart in the defensive backfield last season. "He's such an explosive player that if we perform like we did in the preseason in some cases, it will be a touchdown . . .
"He runs low to the ground, he runs hard (and) he likes to cut back across the grain. He's got good vision for the football field and that makes him tough, because you have stay in your lanes and be disciplined or else he can break one."
Rossum did just that with a scoring 55-yard punt return that gave the Packers a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season. But as solid as Rossum looked on the field in 2001, averaging 9.9 yards per punt return and 18.7 yards per kickoff return, he was available for only six regular season games and both playoff contests due to hamstring and knee injuries.
Despite those injuries, Rossum and the Packers entered the offseason hoping to agree on a new contract that would keep him in the green and gold, but according to Rossum negotiations stalled when he was informed that the Packers wouldn't match the offer made to him by the Falcons.
"I had every intention of staying in Green Bay, but when things don't work out . . . you have to just mature a little bit and say maybe this wasn't meant to be," Rossum said.
While the Packers will start the season using a rotation of Rondell Mealey, Najeh Davenport and Javon Walker to return kickoffs, former Falcon Darrien Gordon is in place to handle punt return duties.
Although coming off a hamstring injury that sidelined him for the final two preseason games, Gordon has been durable throughout his career. Save 1995, when he sat out on injured reserve after undergoing surgery on his rotator cuff, Gordon has appeared in all 16 regular season games in seven of his eight playing seasons. Last year, Gordon averaged a healthy 14.1 yards per punt return with Atlanta.
That this year's season opener sets up a battle between return men and their former teams has not escaped Rossum.
"It's ironic, it seems like it was just a swap," he said. "We know a lot about their punt returner, (the Packers) know a lot about me, so it will be interesting to see exactly what will happen."
With the 53-man roster now locked, the Packers are hoping that most of their problems in kickoff coverage will be solved this week simply by finalizing the 11-man unit. Special teams coach Frank Novak said that most of the players on the coverage team when Tennessee's John Simon opened the second half with a 100-yard return last Friday will not be among the Packers' first-string group.
Of course that hasn't erased Novak's concerns.
"I don't like that happening no matter who we've got out there, that's not what we're about," Novak said. "There are certain responsibilities we have when we cover kickoffs regardless of who is in there. It's like a gap defense, same thing, there are gaps that you have to get to and you have to defeat single blocks."
Despite some public opinion to the contrary, Sherman said that his team's coverage woes have not been related to kicker Ryan Longwell, who was a perfect 8-of-8 on field goal attempts this preseason, but isn't known for putting the ball deep on kickoffs.
Novak suggested that the kick itself would be the least of the Packers' problems this week, considering Rossum's speed and range.
"There's a lot of respect from us out here," Novak said. "I know him as well as I can know any returner. We still have to be able to go down there and defeat blocks and get to the point (of attack) and take proper angles on him and squeeze the field and make plays.
"He has excellent acceleration, good team vision, he competes, he has long-distance speed. He has all of those things, but we have to be in a position to keep that away from him."