White Brings Speed, Smarts To Special Teams

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To the untrained eye, special teams coverage can look pretty chaotic and the result mere happenstance.

Take the Packers' first kickoff against San Francisco last Sunday midway through the first quarter.

Dave Rayner's boot is fielded by Maurice Hicks at the 4-yard line. The wedge of blockers forms around Hicks and as the return reaches the 20, Green Bay's Jason Hunter and Tracy White blast through the wedge at full speed and down goes Hicks at the 21, with the tackle credited to White.

Seems easy enough. Just tear down the field with no abandon or fear, take out anyone in your way and you'll get to the ball-carrier.

But if it were that easy, anyone could cover kickoffs and punts, and there'd be no need for specialized coverage players, let alone practice time devoted to their craft.

The reality is that while all the full-speed running does lead to some chaos and unpredictability on special teams, there's more strategy and design involved in making the plays than most realize.

It's that knowledge and experience that makes a player like White so valuable to special teams coach Mike Stock. A four-year veteran linebacker who played primarily special teams for Seattle (2003-04) and Jacksonville (2005) before coming to Green Bay, White combines the speed and the smarts to be a mainstay on all four of the Packers' special teams units (return and coverage on punts and kickoffs).

So what all went in to White bringing down Hicks after just a 17-yard return last Sunday?

First, it started with film study, where the players learned how the 49ers like to set up their wedge of blockers. Next, it required the speed to be one of the first coverage guys down the field.

Then, it was a matter of executing the coverage against that blocking scheme.

"If you're going down to cover the kick and you're going to attack the wedge, are you going to run into the guy, or run into the crease?" Stock said. "You run into the crease, because that's where the ball carrier is going to run. He's not going to run up the back of one of those guys.

"So if we don't fit the creases, and they block us one-on-one, creases are open and the ball carrier can bust through and we're in trouble. They have to know where to go and how to fit it."

But timing is also an issue. Based on film study and practice, the players are told which seam to hit first, which to hit second, and so on, and the players have to adjust on the fly based on who gets there first.

Now White, who normally prides himself on being the first guy down the field, was actually beaten by Hunter this time. So Hunter did his job, taking up two blockers in the wedge, and the next move was White's, knowing teammates Patrick Dendy and Atari Bigby were in the outside lanes.

"Basically I saw Hunter in front of me, and he hit the seam where I was supposed to go, so I played off him, and the hole was wide open," White said. "The returner came through, and it was a clean hit. I wasn't expecting it, but when I saw it, I was like, 'Please, come on through.'"

It was a textbook blow-up of the wedge, and White's ability to read and react at break-neck speed is one reason he's tied for the team lead in special teams tackles with 12.

He had another key tackle in the San Francisco game on a third-quarter punt return. The 49ers' Brandon Williams faked a reverse to a teammate, who was played perfectly by Bigby, and as Williams tried to turn the corner on the near sideline he was dragged down by White for a 5-yard loss.

"That's about as fine a special teams play as we've seen all year," said Head Coach Mike McCarthy, who awarded the special teams game ball to White this week.

{sportsad300}It was a crucial play, too. With the Packers punting from inside their own 10-yard line, Williams fielded it at the Green Bay 44. Any positive yardage and the 49ers would have been in field-goal range without even getting a first down. But with the 5-yard loss, San Francisco started at the 49, and three plays later an interception by Nick Collins dramatically changed the course of the game.

The Packers' special teams units have had their ups and downs this season, in part because they're manned by so many young players. But the effort by White and the units as a whole against San Francisco are perhaps an indication of the young players benefiting from experience that players like White possess.

"He's got a knowledge and a background and an experience factor that helps him be a better special teams player," Stock said. "He's been around the league, so he knows a little more about playing special teams than some of these really young guys do, the first-year guys. Hopefully they watch him perform and see how he does his thing."

It's a role White, who primarily sets an example with his speed and effort, is happy to perform.

"I have a couple guys asking me during the week what do I see, what do I read off of," White said. ""I take a lot of pride in it. I take it as a competition with my teammates to be the first guy down there, and also trying to make a play against the other team. I give 100 percent on every play."

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