Coming into the season, kicker Dave Rayner's leg strength was no secret, particularly on kickoffs. After all, he spent an entire season as a kickoff specialist for Indianapolis in 2005.
But the Packers have combined that leg strength with a solid kickoff coverage unit that more often than not is giving the Packers defense better field position than a year ago.
So far in 2006, the opponents' average drive start after a Packers kickoff is the 23.3-yard line, which ranks fourth in the NFC and eighth in the league. That's a vast improvement over last season, when opponents started drives after kickoffs at the 28.9-yard line, which ranked tied for 21st in the league.
Special teams coordinator Mike Stock stopped far short of praising the unit just five games into the season, but he feels the potential for the group to climb even closer to the league's best is starting to show.
"No soft spots, no creases, no balls out past the 30-yard line, those are the goals we need to shoot for every time we line up to kick it off," Stock said.
"If we can knock them down a couple more yards, then that will be worth talking about. Up to this point in time, we still have a ways to go."
An improvement of 2 more yards would put the Packers in the league's top three. In the last game, the Rams' average starting spot after four kickoffs was the 20. Against the Saints in Week 2, after six kickoffs it was the 20.7. More efforts like that could accomplish Stock's goal.
The biggest factor in the improvement is Rayner, the second-year kicker whose deep kickoffs have had decent hang time to allow for the tacklers to get downfield. He has hit five touchbacks and had five other kickoffs carry at least 2 yards into the end zone so far this season.
That's already as many touchbacks as the Packers have recorded in any one of the past seven seasons, and with three more in the end zone, Rayner will match the team's top mark in that category over the past six years.
Rayner recorded only one touchback with Indianapolis last year, when he said he tried some different things with his steps and approach but never got comfortable. He was also asked to kick directionally to the right a lot, which isn't his strength, and though he's asked to do that at times here as well, he also feels more freedom to cut loose.
"Even if we're kicking right, I'm still kicking away, I'm running at it and hitting it as hard as I can," he said. "If it goes a little toward the middle, it's still going to go a lot farther than just trying to chip it into the corner.
"I think I'm hitting the ball really well, I'm in a little rhythm, and I think we're covering it really well."
When asked if any of his coverage teammates have stood out, Rayner pointed to rookie Jason Hunter, a 6-foot-4, 255-pound defensive end who has the body type the Packers coaches are utilizing on special teams more and more.
"He stands right next to me, and by the time I hit the ball and look up, he's just hauling down the field looking to kill people," Rayner said. "I think everybody as a group is doing their part and it's been real good."
The unit has had a few breakdowns that have bothered Stock. Against Detroit, return specialist Eddie Drummond took one kickoff 2 yards deep in the end zone and broke free for a 44-yard return to the 42. Philadelphia's Dexter Wynn took two of Rayner's shorter kickoffs, which both came down at the 12, and returned them 24 and 34 yards, respectively.
This week the Dolphins pose a considerable kick return threat in receiver Wes Welker, who's averaging 22.1 yards per return with a long of 39. His numbers aren't spectacular, but he's in his third year as Miami's primary return man and is seasoned in the role.
"He's gangbusters," Stock said. "He doesn't get a lot of notoriety, but believe me this guy has everything in his make up that says winner."
Welker is listed as questionable on this week's injury report with a calf injury, and he missed practice Wednesday but returned to practice Thursday. From their practice squad this week, the Dolphins promoted Marcus Vick, younger brother of Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick, and he's a potential replacement on kickoff returns if Welker is limited or can't play.
The challenges for the Packers kickoff coverage unit won't cease anytime soon, either. After this week, seven of Green Bay's last 10 opponents rank in the top half of the league in average kickoff return yardage, including two teams (Chicago, Detroit) the Packers already have faced.
"There's a lot more ballgames to play in the season, but as we go we have to continue to improve," Stock said. "We've had to face pretty good returners all along. But there's always a new gun in town."