Sunday notes: Rewiring the kick return game

Oct. 6, 2013

Shawn Slocum sees the stat sheet. The Green Bay Packers special-teams coordinator knows exactly where his kickoff return unit ranks.

In case you missed the last three games, that would be 32nd. Good for last in the NFL.

“I don’t like that at all. We have to do something about that,” Slocum said.

Since drafting Randall Cobb in 2011, the Packers' return units have required very little upkeep.

There was the occasional blooper, but mostly the 5-foot-10 receiver’s talent and elusiveness triggered positive results. In 2011 and 2012, the Packers’ kickoff return averaging more than 24-yards per return for the first time in back-to-back seasons since 1963 and 1964.

After ranking 19th and 26th in kickoff returns in 2009 and 2010, respectively, the Packers vaulted up to 11th and 10th the past two seasons.

Midway through last season, however, Cobb’s growing presence on offense began to raise questions about his sustainability on special teams, especially after sustaining an ankle injury on a punt return last December against Tennessee.

The Packers tried to run with Jeremy Ross, but two muffed returns over his last four games led to his departure following a 34-30 loss to Cincinnati two weeks ago.

For the time being, the Packers are evidently turning to a three-headed monster of Cobb and rookies Micah Hyde and Johnathan Franklin to lift a unit currently averaging 12.1 yards per return and giving the offense an average starting field position around the 19-yard line.

The Packers have had more success on punt returns where their unit ranks seventh in the league, but are almost averaging more yards per return there (12.0) than on kickoffs.

“You like to get started quickly. We’ve done that before,” Slocum said. “We haven’t done that this year but it doesn’t take but one big play and all of a sudden that ranking flips and that can be changed in a hurry.”

Give the Packers and general manager Ted Thompson credit. They knew enough not to make the same mistake Mike Sherman did in the early 2000s when he brought in a washed up returners like Darrien Gordon and Eric Metcalf to halfheartedly shore up returns.

Instead, they went after rookie receiver Reggie Dunn, who ran a 4.24-second time in the 40-yard dash at his Utah Pro Day earlier this year and broke an NCAA record with four kickoff returns for touchdown as a senior.

The Packers hardly ever sign a street free agent onto their 53-man roster midseason. It’s become customary for them to bring in players with practice-squad eligibility like running back DuJuan Harris and even Ross, stash them on the scout team and promote them in case of emergency.

Harris worked and so did Ross for a short time before a muffed punt in last January’s NFC divisional playoff loss to San Francisco seemed to scar him.

So will anyone be able to relieve Cobb of his duties? Hyde has extensive punt returning experience but didn’t handle kickoffs in college and Franklin hasn’t caught a meaningful return in a game since high school.

“The punt return play I think has a little less risk for the big hit for a returner than the kick return play,” Slocum said. “It’s something that we weigh in terms of how our whole game plan going into a ball game is and how we’re going to apply it. We’ll make those decisions based on that detail.”

Freeman flyer

Pro Football Talk published a story on Saturday night suggesting the Packers could be one of three teams to surface as possible suitors for recently Josh Freeman.

The story cautioned its findings were more hypothesis than conclusion, but it’s an interesting topic to explore, especially after the Packers kicked the tires on two-time Pro Bowler Vince Young during the preseason.

If you’re not familiar with the former Tampa Bay quarterback’s saga, a quick Google search will tell you everything you need to know about the former first-round pick’s fall from Greg Schiano’s grace.

The argument of Freeman landing in Green Bay seems logical. After all, the Packers have had seven different quarterbacks behind Aaron Rodgers on their roster since April.

Plus, Freeman’s former quarterbacks coach, Alex Van Pelt, is in his second season coaching the Packers’ running backs. A quick scan of the Packers’ media guide will tell you how Van Pelt helped guide Freeman to a franchise-record 7,043 passing yards during his first two NFL seasons.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy was on the receiving side of some of those yards in 2009 when Freeman led the Buccaneers to a 38-28 win over Green Bay.

“I’m aware of what goes on around the league,” McCarthy said. “I haven’t really seen Josh play in a few years. As far as player acquisition and so forth I really don’t have anything to talk about. When we did compete against him I definitely thought he was a young quarterback that had a bright future.”

However, the same reason why it appears logical is also why it seems mildly obtuse.

For starters, it took an entire training camp for the Packers to realize Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman weren’t the answer. At first they cut bait on Harrell for Young before swapping out for 33-year-old veteran Seneca Wallace and former Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien, now on the practice squad.

Could Freeman provide the Packers with the legitimate NFL-ready backup it’s lacked since Matt Flynn departed two years ago? Absolutely. In a game of Madden 25, you’d make the move instantly.

But this isn’t Playstation 3, either. A move like this would mean the Packers committing to yet another in-season cram session.

They’d also have to perform their due-diligence in regards to his very messy divorce in Tampa where character was thrown into question and medical information was leaked.

The situation works both ways. At some point, Freeman and his people will need to decide if he’s better off working behind an established starter for the first time in his career or signing into a likely less-than-advantageous situation where he could be in the starting picture immediately.

The Packers could provide the former, but with Wallace now getting caught up on the playbook is it worth pressing the reset button again?

Combating Bush

Earlier this week, we looked back at the only time Reggie Bush played the Packers during his rookie season in 2006 (

Seven years later, the Detroit Lions veteran running back returns to Lambeau Field a much different player.

The 28-year-old back, who signed for four years, $16 million this offseason, has rushed for 254 yards on 48 carries (5.3 yards per carry) in three games and currently leads all NFL running backs with 3.2 yards per route run, according to Pro Football Focus.

Suffice it to say, the Packers aren’t exactly thrilled with his sudden inclusion in the NFC North scene.

“Let me tell you, this is the Reggie Bush that everybody has been talking about when he got drafted,” Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “This guy here is running the ball unbelievable. His screen game, catching the ball out of the backfield has always been good. In-between the tackles, he’s hitting it, he’s running and making people miss and breaking tackles. He’s running with an edge and balance.

“I’ve never seen him play like this. I hate that he’s in our division playing like this now, but credit to him he’s really a difference-maker right now.”

The Packers' eighth-ranked run defense doesn't seem too concerned about matching up with Bush, who torched Chicago for 139 yards and a touchdown in a 40-32 win last week.

"They've gotten better up front, particularly interior, which allows Bush to do some things," Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji said. "Obviously in the open field he's one of the best in the league. But, I have faith that we'll be able to tackle him."

Parting thoughts

-It would be a minor upset if undrafted rookie offensive lineman Lane Taylor isn’t active for his first NFL game today with Greg Van Roten out a few weeks with a foot sprain.

The Packers will typically keep seven offensive linemen active with veteran Marshall Newhouse being the only other reserve outside of Taylor, a four-year starting right guard at Oklahoma State.

Last month, the 6-foot-3, 324-pound rookie was one of three college free agents to make the 53-man roster. He could also fill Van Roten’s void in the posse on kickoff returns after shadowing him there during the preseason.

Taylor’s first goal was to make it out of the auxiliary locker room, but now it’s about earning his keep.

“It was awesome to know I finally made part of the team,” Taylor said recently. “That was one of my goals to get out of that little hole in the wall back there and work my way into the big room.”

-Morgan Burnett still has a ways to go to reach the safety status of LeRoy Butler and Nick Collins, but his month-long battle with his hamstring was felt by all.

Now cleared to make his 2013 season debut today against the Lions, Burnett’s presence has already brought some swagger back to the defense.

“Morgan is a guy who has played a number of snaps back there and seen a lot of looks and a lot of things,” Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said. “You can count on that guy to get us into checks we need to get into and to quarterback the defense at a high level and make plays back there. He has a great ability in my eyes. To have him back there is definitely better for the defense.” and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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Get Green Bay Packers updates as they happen from our reporting team: (from left) Mike Vandermause, Wes Hodkiewicz and Pete Dougherty.

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