Packers must get 'locked in' on special teams

Challenges will continue for Green Bay’s coverage units heading into playoffs

201219-mike-spoffords-my-one-last-look-column-2560
Special teams

GREEN BAY – Nothing's getting easier for the Packers on special teams.

The challenges for Green Bay's struggling coverage units will continue Saturday night against Carolina and through the rest of the regular season as the Packers look to shore up a trouble spot before the playoffs arrive.

Opposing teams have ripped off three long returns – two on punts for TDs and one on a kickoff well across midfield – in the Packers' last five games, the type of coverage breakdowns that could prove fatal to the season next month.

Carolina will provide another stress test with running back Trenton Cannon returning kicks and receiver Pharoh Cooper on punts. Cannon has a 98-yard runback to his credit this season, while Cooper was a Pro Bowl returner in 2017, when he had eight punt returns of 20-plus yards and also took a kickoff the distance.

"We've definitely got a challenge in front of us, like you do every week. It's the NFL," special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga said. "They do some unique things, fake the ball. So we have to be sound in everything we're doing."

Mennenga's crew, which is led tackles-wise by linebackers Oren Burks, Ty Summers and Randy Ramsey, needs to rediscover its effort from three weeks ago against Chicago, a strong outing amidst the current struggles.

In that game, one of the best in the business on kickoffs, Cordarrelle Patterson, got little done. He returned two kickoffs for just 41 yards. The Bears also were forced to fair catch both punts in the game. The Packers won the field-position battle consistently all night against Chicago's formidable special teams.

So the Packers can execute at that level. They've shown it. With regard to the breakdowns in other games, both Mennenga and Head Coach Matt LaFleur have mentioned players getting shifted around in different positions due to injuries, and the units' play has suffered.

They also emphasize that shouldn't be the case, and it's never just one mistake that allows a big return, but several.

"You might have to move guys around so they gotta know the whole concept and where they fit," LaFleur said. "Because there can't be any drop-off no matter who's in there."

Interestingly, when asked about the special-teams matchup with the Panthers, LaFleur didn't even comment on Cannon or Cooper, or on the fact that new Packers returner Tavon Austin may have an opportunity to provide a spark this week with Carolina having allowed an 83-yard punt return for a score this season.

His comments strictly focused on the Packers getting things fixed. The message: It's about us, not about the opponent.

"There's gotta be a standard to which you play at and in order to achieve that standard, you gotta own your responsibilities and go out there and execute," he said.

Kicker Mason Crosby , who saved a touchdown last week with his tackle on the long kickoff return by Detroit's Jamal Agnew, pointed out, "It's just eliminating that one or two plays in a game."

Well, the Packers have three games to get that play or two straightened out before its do-or-die time, and difficulties will be present in all three contests. After Cannon and Cooper, next week Tennessee receiver Kalif Raymond has a 40-yard punt return to his credit this season (the Titans also have a TD on a kickoff return from receiver A.J. Brown, but it came on an onside kick).

Then it's Patterson again for the Bears, who might be fighting for a playoff spot of their own in Week 17. Playing for three different teams in his career, Patterson has brought back eight kickoffs for TDs, including one this season.

"It just comes down to fundamentals and guys reading their keys and reading their indicators and essentially doing their job," Mennenga said.

And not just here and there, but every single time.

With the Packers possessing the league's highest-scoring offense, plus a defense that has played well in spurts and risen up in key moments, the special-teams miscues over the past month and a half have sorely stood out on a championship-caliber team.

There's no rest for the weary as the regular season wraps up. A turnaround in the game's third phase has to start Saturday night.

"Our guys gotta be locked in," LaFleur said. "As always, special teams are a critical part of the game and we need ours to step up and come through for us."

Advertising