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Special Teams Endured Up-And-Down Year

The one facet of the 2009 Packers that may have been the hardest to get a handle on all season was the special teams. Seemingly every area - coverage and return units, kicking and punting - had its ups and downs. In an extensive session with reporters earlier this week, special teams coach Shawn Slocum reviewed where things stand with his units and what it means for 2010.


The one facet of the 2009 Green Bay Packers that may have been the hardest to get a handle on all season was the special teams.

Seemingly every area on special teams - coverage and return units, kicking and punting - had its ups and downs. Some of that was due to injury and lineup shuffling, some due to plain inconsistency.

In an extensive session with reporters earlier this week, special teams coach Shawn Slocum reviewed where things stand with his units and what it means for 2010.

Here's a rundown of some key topics:


Heading into the final four games of the regular season, kickoff coverage was a major question mark. In a span of six games through midseason, Minnesota's Percy Harvin (77 yards), Tampa Bay's Clifton Smith (83 yards), San Francisco's Josh Morgan (76 yards) and Baltimore's Lardarius Webb (68 yards) all broke long returns against Green Bay.

But things definitely stabilized down the stretch. Over the last five games, including the Wild Card playoff at Arizona, the Packers allowed only one kick return longer than 30 yards.

That helped the unit drop the average return against it to 22.8 yards for the season, good for a middle-of-the-pack ranking of tied for 17th in the league.

The lineup became more consistent, which helped, after mid-season injuries on defense forced some shifting around. But more important, Slocum felt the units as a whole got their aggression back, and that made the biggest difference.

"I saw an improvement because I saw a group of guys working together with some continuity and that bred some confidence," he said. "If each guy goes and covers as hard as he can as one of 11, then you can't help but be successful. When guys start throwing on the brakes and not making a mistake, that's when you get problems because they can't get off blocks and make tackles."

Punt coverage wasn't really an issue after Cincinnati's Quan Cosby posted a 60-yard return in Week 2, but the team's ranking of tied for No. 24 (10.1-yard average) overall may have had more to do with hang time than anything. There certainly weren't the seams and open spaces the kickoff coverage unit struggled with.

Linebacker Desmond Bishop, safety Derrick Martin and tight end Spencer Havner all recorded at least 20 tackles in the regular season, the first trio of Packers to do so since 1984, and were the coverage leaders all season long. All young and ascending players, their steady impact should bode well for next year, provided Martin is re-signed (he'll be a restricted free agent if no new collective bargaining agreement is in place by the start of free agency).

"I think it helps," Slocum said of having potential leaders return the following year. "Each season is a new season within its own. Things change in this league. Where we are today, we'll take the guys that played well and move forward and hopefully continue to do some of the positive things that we've done."


Injuries were the biggest factor here, as primary return man Will Blackmon was lost for the season to a knee injury in Week 4, and then the team's best punt returner statistically - cornerback Tramon Williams - was taken off that duty when he became a starter on defense following Al Harris' season-ending knee injury.

Receiver Jordy Nelson became the main returner on both kickoffs and punts, but the results were mixed.

Nelson's 25.4-yard average on kickoff returns was solid, ranking 11th in the league, and the Packers as a team tied for ninth in the league with an average starting position of the 27.3-yard line after kickoffs.

But with only two kickoff returns longer than 40 yards, Nelson didn't provide the explosion that can change momentum in a game, though he did have a 99-yard return for a score called back on a penalty. And his 5.3-yard average on 17 punt returns would not have cracked the league's top 25 even if he had enough attempts to qualify.

By contrast, Williams posted a 10.4-yard average on his 13 punt returns, including the team's season-long punt return of 45 yards. His average would have been in the top 10.

"I was pleased with kickoff-return production because of where we started the ball," Slocum said. "We were tackled inside the 20 very few times (seven, tied for second lowest in the league). With the type of offense we have, if we give them the ball outside the 20 it helps our football team win.

"I would like to have more explosive returns with a chance to score a touchdown or two, or maybe more. I thought our punt-return production was not where it needs to be."

Blackmon's return can't necessarily be counted on as a cure-all there because he's had several injuries already in his four-year career, and this time he'll be coming off of reconstructive knee surgery. Slocum said he'll continue to try to find as many viable options as possible, and look for improvement one way or another.

"I think it's important that you have a number of guys that can catch punts because of things that happen during the season due to injuries," he said. "Typically you're going to have more than one guy do it, so the more guys that you have that have that ability, it gives you a better shot."


Long snapper Brett Goode was practically flawless for the second straight year, but kicker Mason Crosby took a step back statistically and punter Jeremy Kapinos was also up and down.

Crosby's struggles were well-documented, as he missed a field goal of less than 45 yards in four straight games from Weeks 12-15. He also made just 2-of-6 on the season from 50-plus, hitting in the season opener and in Week 16 but missing all four long tries in between. He also missed from 54 in the playoffs.

That left his regular-season numbers at 27-of-36, a 75.0 percent conversion rate that was below the 79.5 and 79.4 he posted each of his first two seasons in the league. One goal for this year was to get above the 80 percent benchmark that all but six other kickers with at least 20 attempts hit in 2009.

The question that can't be answered for sure until next season is whether Crosby's struggles were a rough patch the young kicker has moved past and will put behind him, or a dangerous sign of unreliability that threatens his long-term potential in this league.

"I think Mason is a very diligent worker," Slocum said. "He missed some kicks due to structural parts of his technique. In terms of mindset and approach to the game, he's very professional, he's a very intelligent person, he's very practical. That's what allowed him to come out of an adverse time."

Kapinos, meanwhile, put in his first full season at the NFL level, and Slocum emphasized that his biggest focus needs to be repeating his technique and fundamentals more consistently.

Kapinos' gross average of 43.8 yards ranked 16th in the NFL, but his net average of 34.1 was 32nd. Slocum attributed that mostly to a lack of hang time that allowed for a 10-yard return average, and the fact that less than one-fourth of his punts (15 of 66) got inside the 20. Kapinos had 10 touchbacks, tied for the second most in the league.

But Slocum also pointed out that Kapinos posted a better net than the opposing punter in four of the last five games (including playoffs), and the two already have discussed at length a plan for the down time heading into the offseason program in March.

{sportsad300}"I thought overall he got better as the season went on," Slocum said. "I think he settled in from a mindset standpoint, particularly there at the end. I thought he had some excellent punts. The thing we're trying to do with him is be as consistent as possible, get the hang time to improve to force more fair catches and get our net punt average up.

"Sometimes it takes punters a little bit of time to get all the things that are necessary and get acclimated to the NFL game, and I look for him to continue to move forward."

Slocum said he encouraged both Crosby and Kapinos to seek out NFL colleagues in the offseason and pick their brains a little bit, maybe find a tip to use in workouts or preparation or practice to help perfect their craft.

But with the struggles both have had, there's a good chance they'll face competition for their jobs in 2010, at least in the offseason if not through training camp.

"I love competition," Slocum said. "Anybody involved in the game wants competition, because competition forces guys to perform."

As usual on special teams, the Packers also got substantial contributions from rookies. Slocum noted Brad Jones in punt protection, Jarius Wynn on punt block/return, Evan Dietrich-Smith on kickoff return and Brandon Underwood as a perimeter player all made their mark and could continue to help next year as well.

"I'm encouraged with the rookie class we added to the football team this year," he said.

Special teams is more in flux than any other segment of a team, because it generally employs the bottom half of the roster, where there's more turnover year to year. So there's no telling how much continuity Slocum can count on as he enters his second season as coordinator.

That said, he's also not going to simply stick with the status quo for its own sake. Whether it's another option in the return game, legitimate competition at kicker and punter, or another coverage demon, the Packers won't hesitate to upgrade Slocum's personnel if the opportunity is there.

"We will go through this evaluation process looking at our players and determine how we want to move forward as an organization," Slocum said. "We'll look at the draft, see who we can bring in here to help our football team grow. That's just part of the natural process of the springtime in the NFL to try to build your team most capable of trying to compete for 16 games."

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