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Green Bay Packers' special teams 'much further along' than last season, says coach Shawn Slocum

Jul. 30, 2010
 
Green Bay Packers punter Chris Bryan during Organized Team Activities practice at Ray Nitschke Field, Wednesday, June 16, 2010.
Green Bay Packers punter Chris Bryan during Organized Team Activities practice at Ray Nitschke Field, Wednesday, June 16, 2010. / File/Press-Gazette

Packers by Position

Green Bay Press-Gazette reporter Pete Dougherty will be focusing on a different Packers position each day going into training camp. The schedule is as follows:
♦ Friday: Receivers/tight ends
♦ Saturday: Offensive line
♦ Sunday: Quarterbacks
♦ Monday: Running backs
♦ Tuesday: Defensive line
♦ Wednesday: Linebackers
♦ Thursday: Defensive backs
Today: Special teams

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Last season, the Green Bay Packers finished No. 31 in the NFL in the Dallas Morning News’ annual special teams rankings, based on their composite finish in 22 statistical categories.

It’s not the be-all and end-all measure of special teams performance, but it’s pretty strong confirmation the Packers’ special teams were more liability than asset in 2009. It’s also the third time in Mike McCarthy’s four previous seasons as coach the Packers have finished No. 26 or worse in those rankings.

Last year, McCarthy said he expected the switch to a 3-4 defense to beef up special teams because the extra linebackers on the roster would provide more players with ideal builds and skills for coverage teams. It didn’t happen, and he’s looking for the jump this year.

Shawn Slocum, entering his second season as McCarthy’s special teams coach after assisting Mike Stock in that area the three previous seasons, changed some drills this offseason and emphasized avoiding penalties more than ever. But more than anything, he and McCarthy are counting on the Packers’ maturing roster after four straight years as the NFL’s youngest team to get special teams performing at an acceptable level.

“We are much further along as a group than we’ve been the five years I’ve been here, at this point,” Slocum said when offseason practice ended in late June. “What we did, we identified the things we needed to work on, we developed a plan in the offseason, and in the spring we started working on that. Guys have really taken it and excelled in terms of fundamentals and technique, and I expect us to play very good.”

Actually, the simplest route to improved special teams is getting better play from their specialists, who can cover up weaknesses by themselves with superior performance. To that end, the Packers need Chris Bryan or Tim Masthay to provide a major upgrade at punter; Will Blackmon to return to form as a returner after knee-reconstruction surgery; and Mason Crosby to have moved past the technical problems that plagued his field-goal kicking last season.

The Packers’ punting has been arguably the worst in the NFL since 2008, when after jettisoning Jon Ryan at the end of training camp, they’ve tried Derrick Frost and then Jeremy Kapinos. Last season, Kapinos ranked at or near the bottom of the NFL in several key categories, including net average (32nd), punts downed inside the 20 (32nd) and 10 (tied for 28th) and fair catches forced (33rd).

This offseason, they settled on two candidates to replace him, the former Australian Rules Football player Bryan, and Masthay, who was out of the league last year as a rookie after getting cut by Indianapolis during training camp. Neither has punted in an NFL game.

“We’ve got every resource that every NFL team has, and we’ve decided to go in this direction,” Slocum said. “I think we have two excellent candidates.”

Though Bryan is bigger (6-feet-5 and 220 pounds to Masthay’s 6-1 and 197), Masthay might have the slightly more powerful leg. And though Masthay has been punting in American football much longer, the 28-year-old Bryan might be the better technician after playing the Australian game most of his life, including four years in that country’s top professional league before deciding to try the NFL this year.

Masthay’s greatest shortcoming is get-off time, where he takes about 1.5 seconds from catching to striking the ball, about one-quarter of a second slower than the ideal 1.25-second get-off time.

Both punters looked adept this offseason using nonspiral techniques for pooch punting — Bryan actually has two or three different techniques, including a propeller ball that he drops sideways and hits near one end with a full swing.

“It’s not to say that just to get through the interview, these two guys are talented,” Slocum said. “Both have big legs and can kick five-second hang times. They can both give you a 50-yard punt. The thing we have to do is limit the number of turns where we actually have to tackle, we have to have great production inside the 20, and I’m probably most pleased with that to this point (in the offseason), our production inside the 20.”

In the return game, the Packers showed little after Blackmon’s season ended with a blown out knee in Week 3, and based on their offseason they’re counting on him to make a strong comeback from knee-reconstruction surgery.

On punt returns, they were in good hands with Tramon Williams (10.4-yard average) in his place, but after Williams became a starting cornerback when Al Harris’ season ended in November, the Packers were unwilling to risk Williams getting injured returning punts. Williams might be the starter all season this year. Last year’s fallback, Jordy Nelson (5.3-yard average), is a long strider who didn’t have the short-area quickness to be a threat.

The potential punt returners General Manager Ted Thompson added this spring were undrafted rookies Sam Shields and Quinn Porter, both of whom struggled catching punts in practices.

The story is similar on kickoff returns. Nelson took over as primary returner after Blackmon’s injury and lacked a dynamic quality or ability to put fear in teams even though his numbers weren’t bad (a 25.4-yard average that ranked No. 11 in the league).

Shields, Porter and sixth-round pick James Starks, a running back, all worked on kickoff returns this offseason. But unless one of them has a stunning preseason game or two, Blackmon looks like the team’s best returner by far, especially on punts, where he’s taken back three for touchdown in 47 returns. Though his career kickoff-return average is only 21.1 yards, he’s more dynamic than Nelson showed last season.

“With Will Blackmon’s experience, I look forward to him getting back and getting into our scheme and techniques we use there,” Slocum said. “He’s got a chance to really improve there. We’ve got good athletes, and I’d love to get somebody that, ‘Here’s our guy, he stays healthy, let’s move forward.’”

At kicker, Crosby has had a full offseason to right himself after a troubling late-year stretch in ’09 where he missed an eminently makeable kick in four straight games, ranging from 34 yards to 43 yards, and all from the right hash mark.

Crosby lived in Green Bay most of the offseason and worked with strength coach Tom Lovat in a conditioning program that emphasized improving his core strength. The Packers still like the fourth-year pro’s high level of talent enough to not even bring in competition, but they’re looking for him to top the 80 percent accuracy mark for the first time in his career — last season, 18 of the 21 kickers with at least 20 field-goal attempts did it.

“His kickoffs are outstanding, the ball is jumping off his foot,” Slocum said. “From a field-goal standpoint I’m seeing the ball go in more of a straight line flight of the ball overall. I’m pleased with where he is.”

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