Even if Brandon James hadn’t muffed it, Tim Masthay’s second-quarter punt would have been a thing of beauty.
The Green Bay Packers punting hopeful drilled a 45-yarder that towered over Lambeau Field for 5.0 seconds and gave his coverage unit plenty of time to get down field. At worst, Masthay would have pinned the Indianapolis Colts inside the 10-yard line.
But when James, the Colts’ rookie returner, misplayed Masthay’s kick at the 8-yard line – he came up too far and at the last second tried to reach back to catch it – the Packers had a gimme touchdown after Korey Hall recovered it in the end zone.
It was Masthay’s only punt of the first half but at the least for the moment, it might have been enough to give the first-year player from Kentucky the edge over Aussie Chris Bryan in the battle for the punting job.
Bryan’s only first-half punt was so-so – a 38-yarder that hung for just 3.44 seconds before it bounced out of bounds at the Colts’ 22-yard line. Nothing disastrous, but the Packers surely are looking for better than that.
Coming into Thursday’s third preseason game, the punting competition between Masthay and Bryan had been a virtual dead heat. Perhaps Masthay’s big play will give him an edge.
Masthay’s punt capped a solid showing by the number one special teams units, which featured some new personnel this week. Rookie Sam Shields replaced veteran Jarrett Bush on kickoff coverage, and Shields also was a jammer on the punt return team.
The Packers gave up an average of just 24.2 yards on four kickoff returns by James in the first half. His long was a 32-yarder. Against Seattle last Saturday, the Packers gave up returns of 54 and 30 yards.
Ryan Grant will take a streak of 291 consecutive carries without losing a fumble into the regular season, but in the back of his mind – and everyone else’s – will be the fact that he has fumbled twice in the first three preseason games.
After losing a fumble on his first play of the first preseason game against the Cleveland Browns on Aug. 14, he fumbled on his eighth carry against the Colts. He didn’t lose this one, thanks to a recovery by center Scott Wells, but the fact that the ball was jarred from his hands again should be worrisome for the Packers.
Grant didn’t take another snap after the fumble and two series later watched his backup, Brandon Jackson, also fumble, which the Colts recovered.
What’s more, the Packers’ backup running back situation is a mess. The guy they drafted to be their third halfback, James Starks, looks destined for injured reserve since he has missed all of training camp because of a hamstring injury. Their undrafted free agent flavor of the month, Quinn Porter, looked good in camp until he sprained an ankle against the Seahawks and didn’t look quite as good as he had.
With Kregg Lumpkin also bothered by a hamstring injury, the Packers had to use fullback John Kuhn in some single-back sets in the first half. Lumpkin did see action in the second half.
Did you notice?
♦ Defensive coordinator Dom Capers played every snap of the first half in nickel defense to combat the Colts’ multiple-receiver sets and Peyton Manning’s no-huddle offense that makes substitutions difficult.
♦ Shields rotated with Pat Lee and Brandon Underwood as the third cornerback in the number one nickel and on his first play, Shields got beat on a crossing route by Reggie Wayne for a 24-yard gain. Three plays later, he was one of three players who missed tackles (Brandon Chillar and Brady Poppinga were the others) on Joseph Addai’s 33-yard catch and run.
♦ Second-year fullback Quinn Johnson, who seems to be in danger of getting cut, leveled All-Pro safety Bob Sanders for a key block on second-and-1 play in which Grant gained 6-yards in the first quarter.
♦ Masthay did all the holding for Mason Crosby’s placekicks. Bryan had that duty against Seattle. Masthay handled kickoffs in the second half.