Special Teams Aim To Be Just That On Sunday


Green Bay's special teams played a significant role in the season-opening win over the Minnesota Vikings, and it could very well factor in once again in a rivalry that has been tightly contested over the past several years.

In the Packers' win over Minnesota in Week 1 at Lambeau Field, cornerback Will Blackmon fielded punter Chris Kluwe's punt at Green Bay's own 24-yard line midway through the third quarter. He took the low kick down the left sideline, narrowly staying in bounds, before cutting across the field and running down the opposite sideline 76 yards for the score.

The touchdown from Blackmon, which helped him earn NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors, put Green Bay up 17-6, a lead they never relinquished on their way to a 24-19 win.

Blackmon said he felt the return sent a message to teams about not only his big-play capabilities, but also the abilities of Green Bay's entire punt return unit, which has helped spring him for three returns of 20-plus yards this season, tied for sixth in the league.

"I figure that they know we have a big threat back there and our guys do an awesome job of working hard and blocking," Blackmon said. "We understand that special teams are a big part of us winning, and I'm sure teams are aware of that."

The Vikings' punt coverage unit has not been an area of strength either this season as they enter Sunday's contest last in the NFL by allowing 16.5 yards per punt return. That includes not only Blackmon's 76-yard score but also touchdown returns of 71 and 64 yards from Saints running back Reggie Bush in Minnesota's Week 5 win at New Orleans.

Minnesota's touchdowns allowed on punt returns are the most in the NFL, and they also rank at the bottom of the league by giving up six returns of 20-plus yards so far this season.

One area of punt returning that doesn't necessarily show up in his individual statistics but helps the team in the field position battle is running up to return short kicks rather than letting them bounce for extra yardage, which is something special teams coordinator Mike Stock said Blackmon has excelled in.

"He is a very courageous guy and not afraid to go up and get the football and it has really saved us some yardage for the offense on some short punts," Stock said. "He has got to make good judgments too. If he can save the ball to get yardage for our offense and save them from getting backed up by taking that ball short without jeopardizing losing possession, then we're OK."

Stock said he doesn't anticipate Blackmon getting many opportunities to field low kicks this Sunday against Vikings punter Chris Kluwe (seventh in the NFL with a 47.6-yard average) in the climate-controlled Metrodome.

"This guy is not known as a short punter," Stock said. "He kicks the ball deep and high and he's a pretty strong-legged guy. We're going to see a different kind of punt this week up there."

The Vikings haven't fared much better in the punt return game as they rank last in the league with a 4.6-yard average. Take away wide receiver Aundrae Allison's 27-yard return against Indianapolis in Week 2, and the Vikings have a 3.3-yard average on their 18 other returns. The Packers are fifth in the NFL by holding opponents to a 6.4-yard average on punt returns.

"It's a week in and week out battle and right now we are doing well," Stock said. "Last year at this time we were doing the same and we kind of slid a little bit. We've got to make sure we keep our nose to the grindstone and get after this next opponent."

The Packers' success in coverage has been made more impressive by the fact that all five of their leading tacklers on special teams from last year have either been injured (linebacker Jason Hunter, linebacker Desmond Bishop, fullback Korey Hall) and missed time at some point this season, or no longer with the team (linebacker Tracy White, cornerback Frank Walker).

Veteran linebacker Brandon Chillar, acquired in free agency from St. Louis this offseason, leads the team with 11 stops on special teams, but the Packers have also received recent contributions from younger players such as safety Aaron Rouse, cornerback Pat Lee and tight end Jermichael Finley.

"The young kids have stepped up," Stock said. "You just hope the amount of reps they got in the preseason games helped them and there is carryover, and the same things we have been preaching since then have kind of been indelibly marked in their brain."

{sportsad300}That has carried over to Green Bay's kickoff coverage as well, as they stand tied for fourth in the NFL with the opponents' average starting field position after kickoffs at 24.0. The importance of field position this week against Minnesota is evidenced by the fact that the Vikings have had only two touchdown drives all season that started inside their own 20-yard line, compared to the Packers' six, which is tied for the most in the league.

One area the Packers are looking to improve in is kickoff return, where they rank 27th in the NFL with a 20.9-yard average. Green Bay is one of 10 teams in the league that has yet to return a kick past the 50-yard line this season.

There have been recent signs of improvement, with Blackmon posting returns of 30-plus yards in the last two games he has had a return, and with rookie wide receiver Jordy Nelson's 40-yarder at Tennessee this past Sunday.

"It's picking up," Blackmon said. "Sometimes they do a great job of blocking for me and I'll miss the hole. Sometimes I'll see the hole and we won't finish, or sometimes I don't finish the run. It's a thing that we know we have to do collectively, and I'm sure we'll take care of it."

In a divisional rivalry that has been decided by a touchdown or less in 11 of the last 12 regular-season games, including six games by three points or less, the Packers are well aware that one play on special teams could very well be the difference in determining which team improves to 5-4 on Sunday.

"All three phases will be very, very important in the outcome of this game," Stock said. "We hope to do our part to help the offense and the defense with the field position that we are responsible for, both in the coverage aspect and the return aspect."

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