Notebook: Impact of injuries especially noticeable as special teams struggle

Oct. 20, 2013

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Cleveland Browns full back Chris Ogbonnaya (25) looks for room to run against the Green Bay Packers in the fourth quarter during Sunday's game at Lambeau Field. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media


In 2012, coach Mike McCarthy often lauded special teams for being the Green Bay Packers’ most consistent unit.

Six games into the 2013 campaign, however, it’s out of sync.

The Packers walked away with a 31-13 win over Cleveland on Sunday but afforded the Browns plenty of opportunity along the way, particularly on kickoff returns on which returners Travis Benjamin and Fozzy Whittaker scorched the Packers for 189 yards on four returns. Cleveland’s offense generated only 216 total yards for the entire game.

The issues didn’t end there. In the first quarter, the Packers gave the Browns a new set of downs following a roughing-the-kicker call on fourth-and-10.

In the third, they had a 56-yard Tim Masthay coffin corner punt to the Cleveland 1-yard line wiped out by an ineligible man downfield (Andrew Quarless). The next punt traveled only 23 yards to the Cleveland 39, but was then pushed back to the 24 because of an unsportsmanlike penalty on the Browns.

Injuries have hit the Packers hard on a number of levels, but the impact can be felt on special teams where three captains who had more than 300 snaps there a year ago —Ryan Taylor (knee), Robert Francois (Achilles) and Jarrett Bush (hamstring) — have missed extended time.

The only other player with that much experience, Jamari Lattimore, is starting at inside linebacker.

“It can be very difficult,” said rookie safety Chris Banjo of filling voids. “A lot of guys have chemistry whether it be on the field or whenever it may be, but that’s part of what we get paid for to midstream adjust when we’re asked. Roles may change, but expectations never do. We just have to continue to build on that and go from there.”

On Sunday, the newest personnel changes resulted in the installation of recently promoted rookies Jake Stoneburner and Myles White, and even wide receiver Chris Harper, who worked as a blocker on kickoff returns after being claimed off waivers from San Francisco on Friday.

Stoneburner and White had plays they wanted back. After not playing special teams at Ohio State, Stoneburner was the responsible party for running into the plant foot of Cleveland punter Spencer Lanning on fourth-and-10 in the first quarter to draw a personal foul and a new set of downs for the Browns.

White’s error came in the fourth quarter as a member of the hands team on an onside kick. When the ball came his way, he fumbled the squib, allowing the Browns to recover. The Packers were quickly bailed out after linebacker Eric Martin was called offside to force a rekick.

“That was my first time I got thrown (in),” White said. “I still have to do my job, regardless. I know I can do it. I just took my eye off the ball. I caught it. I just tried to do too much. I didn’t go down immediately. I’m glad it got wiped off, because that would’ve hurt.”

Benjamin did the most damage with his one return for 86 yards that set up the Browns’ only score in the fourth quarter, but Whittaker had a 56-yarder to go along with his 34.3-yard per return average.

“We’re going to see when we watch film,” Packers cornerback Davon House said. “Usually our kickoff team, we haven’t really given them many explosive plays, so we’ll see what happens when we watch film.”

Toughing it out

Mike Neal didn’t practice all week with a shoulder bruise and was listed as questionable for Sunday’s game, but said he felt good enough by the end of the week to tough it out.

The final call? Since there was no tearing in the shoulder, the coaches took their cue from him.

The Packers needed all the help they could get, starting two rookies at outside linebacker, Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer, with starters Clay Matthews (thumb) and Nick Perry (foot) out indefinitely.

“They told me from the start, there’s no pressure; if you felt good, then you go out there and play,” said Neal, who had two hurries in limited work. “I called (outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene) Saturday and told him I want to play. I don’t care how it feels, I want to play. He gave me the go-ahead and we monitored my reps and I was good to play.”

Safety switch-up

The Packers summoned rookie safety Chris Banjo onto the field in the second half in place of M.D. Jennings, who has started the first six games.

Neither player was given an explanation for the switch, but Banjo finished the game opposite Morgan Burnett with one tackle and a pass deflection. Jennings had three tackles before he subbed out.

Since making the team as an undrafted rookie out of camp, Banjo has been making his case for more playing time. He started over second-year safety Jerron McMillian last month against Cincinnati when Burnett was out with a hamstring injury.

“I had no clue I was going in,” Banjo said. “Just before I got in, they just told me you’re going to be going in this series and I had no question. I just went in and tried to do my job.”

Extra point

■ All seven of the Packers’ inactive players were dealing with injuries, including Matthews, Taylor, Perry, wide receiver James Jones (knee), running back James Starks (knee), Casey Hayward (hamstring), inside linebacker Brad Jones (hamstring).

It was the first regular-season game Jones has missed since Nov. 24, 2008, snapping a 74-game streak. He was listed as questionable after injuring his knee last week against Baltimore.

■ There were plenty of firsts for Packers reserves as inside linebacker Jamari Lattimore registered his first sack, wide receiver Jarrett Boykin caught his first touchdown and House nabbed his first interception.

Lattimore led the defense with 12 tackles (nine solo) and a pass deflection.

“I was really happy for him. He’s worked so hard and played so well last week,” inside linebacker A.J. Hawk said. “He’s another guy who’s stepped in and has done such a good job. I feel really comfortable playing next to him.”

■ Newly acquired Harper said he missed his 4 p.m. flight to Green Bay after being claimed off waivers on Friday before attending meetings Saturday morning.

■ Cobb utilized a Segway to navigate the locker room after the game, but didn’t speak to the media. He was placed on injured reserve with designation to return this week after breaking his fibula against the Ravens.

■ The Packers wore their 1929 replica jerseys and are 3-0 in that uniform.

That success wasn’t lost on quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

“I think there’s definitely some sentiment in the locker room that the pants associated with the throwback jerseys and the throwback jerseys are pretty good luck for us,” he said, “so maybe a couple more times wearing those might not be a bad idea, Packers people.”

— Robert Zizzo contributed

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