Packers' special teams have 'mentality brewing'

Solid effort vs. Bears helped win the field-position battle

P Pat O'Donnell

GREEN BAY – In a week-to-week league like the NFL, nothing is ever totally fixed, but the Packers feel pretty good about the progress their special teams have made in the first couple weeks of the new season.

In Sunday night's win over the Bears, the Packers decisively won the field-position battle, which ties back directly to new coordinator Rich Bisaccia's special-teams units.

After returning Green Bay's first kickoff 30 yards to the 29-yard line, the Bears didn't start another possession following a punt or a kickoff anywhere better than their own 25, with six drives beginning at the 20 or worse.

"Just the jump we made in that area from Week 1 to Week 2 was pretty significant," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said Monday. "I thought that's as aggressive as we've been, I would say, in my time here. I think there's a mentality brewing."

Veterans Dallin Leavitt and Rudy Ford were two of the leaders against the Bears, as Leavitt made two tackles on kickoff coverage inside the 25, including one at the 15, and Ford is proving he remains one of the league's top punt gunners at forcing fair catches.

Also, punter Pat O'Donnell boomed a 72-yard punt for a touchback and 52-yard net, which the Packers will take anytime, and Amari Rodgers returned a punt 20 yards to set the offense up at its own 46, leading to a touchdown drive. All of Mason Crosby's field goals and PATs, with O'Donnell as the new holder and undrafted rookie Jack Coco as the new snapper, have been executed without a hitch thus far as well.

It wasn't a flawless outing, as Rodgers muffed one punt (recovering it himself) and Leavitt was called for holding on the same return.

But the leaky punt protection from the opener at Minnesota was shored up, in part due to LaFleur changing the team's padded practice last week from Thursday to Wednesday, when the Packers run their punt drills. The change allowed the punt rushes and blocking to be more game-like, and it appears to have paid off.

"It's only one game and you've got to do it consistently and our guys know that," LaFleur said. "Hopefully we'll see more improvement in this upcoming game. We know we've got a great challenge in front of us, too. Tampa Bay is loaded."

So far this season, Buccaneers punt returner Jaelon Darden has averaged 9.0 yards on five returns following a 7.5-yard average on 19 attempts last season. Speedy running back Giovani Bernard has just one kickoff return through two games this year.

Meanwhile, punter Jake Camarda has already put five of nine punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line, helping out a plenty stout Tampa Bay defense with field position.

While Week 1 at Minnesota was probably close to a wash in the special-teams comparison, Green Bay gained the edge against Chicago. It may be a small step but it's one that's helping to establish the right expectations.

"It's about making improvements each and every week," LaFleur said. "You either get better or you get worse; you're never going to stay the same. I was happy with the improvement we showed in that area, but certainly it's never perfect and there's a lot to clean up, and we're going to have to be at our best in order to compete with Tampa."

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