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'We-fense' is hungry to change narrative of Packers' special teams

New coordinator, offseason changes have revitalized the unit

Special Teams Coordinator Rich Bisaccia
Special Teams Coordinator Rich Bisaccia

GREEN BAY – The Packers shook up nearly every aspect of their special teams this offseason.

A new coordinator was installed, the organizational philosophy was modified, and several established veterans were brought into the mix.

But there also were returning players such as Krys Barnes, Tipa Galeai and Amari Rodgers who remember what went awry for Green Bay's third phase last season.

And now, beginning Sunday in Minnesota, they finally have their opportunity to help fix it.

"We want to change the narrative of what it's been the last couple years," Barnes said. "We're starting to apply ourselves in every way possible to help this team win. It's a 'We-fense' thing now. Everyone matters."

Over the past five months, new special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia and his assistants, Byron Storer and Micheal Spurlock, have been setting a new vision for the unit, whose struggles hit a low point in last January's NFC Divisional playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

When it comes to personnel, General Manager Brian Gutekunst and his scouts shuffled the deck by bringing in veteran punter/holder Pat O'Donnell, rookie long snapper Jack Coco and a new core of veteran leaders that includes Dallin Leavitt and Keisean Nixon, who both played on Bisaccia's units with the Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders the past three seasons.

The Packers were still at it last week in signing Rudy Ford, a 6-foot, 200-pound safety considered one of the NFL's fastest gunners, with 29 coverage tackles in his five pro seasons.

Head Coach Matt LaFleur has placed a deliberate emphasis on special teams, as well, from allowing the unit more full-speed cover periods in practice to adopting Bisaccia's "We-fense" terminology whenever he's addressing the team.

"I think we've done a good job working together," Bisaccia said, "on how we want to construct practice and how we want those players to work through practice and what the end of the week looks like. So, Coach has been great with that, and I think the players have responded really well to it."

As much as things have changed, the Packers also recognize improvement must come from within. The Packers' top four special-teamers in terms of playing time in 2021 have all departed, but Green Bay does return nine players who saw action on at least 25% of its special-teams snaps last season.

With a new field-goal operation, Green Bay is expecting a bounce-back year from veteran kicker Mason Crosby. The 15-year veteran missed camp after having his right knee scoped but has been a full participant in practice this week.

Rodgers, drafted in the third round last year out of Clemson, also appeared more confident in the summer. In Green Bay's preseason opener against San Francisco, Rodgers broke a 50-yard kickoff return to get the Packers going.

Then, there's complementary players like Galeai. The former Utah State defensive end didn't play on special teams at all in college but is positioned to be one of the team's core special-teamers this season.

"It's just filling the holes that we had last year to keep getting better," Galeai said. "There's a lot of times where we look at the film and the effort's there, the mentality is there. We've just got to go and make the play."

The Packers will have their work cut out for them in Sunday's opener after the Vikings acquired third-year returner Jalen Reagor in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles last week.

Two years ago, Reagor ran back a 73-yard punt return for a touchdown during the Eagles' 30-16 loss to Green Bay at Lambeau Field. The Vikings also boast one of the league's top kickoff returners in Kene Nwangwu, who returned two kickoffs for touchdowns as a rookie in 2021.

"He's really, really fast, and he's trying to get the edge all the time," said Bisaccia of Raegor. "We just have to do a good job of covering him, along with their kick-return guy. … They've got a good return game going and we'll have to see how we play in coverage."

Everyone associated with Green Bay's special teams refers to the offseason changes as "a process" and Bisaccia acknowledges things will be fluid, especially early on. But the two ways to protect your job at this level are with "your performance on the field and your actions off of it," and he's drilled that into his players.

Whether it's new players or returning veterans, the Packers are hungry to change the stigma surrounding the unit. For all the unknowns, there is a palpable energy and excitement about the direction the "We-fense" has taken under Bisaccia.

"I think we're going to be good; I think we're going to hit some bumps in the road," Bisaccia said. "We're going to have to overcome some successes we have, and we're going to have to overcome some not-so-much successful plays that we have. It's just part of the game."