Costly blunders prompt soul-searching on special teams
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — From the sideline, Chris Banjo saw the play unfolding before it happened.
There's a certain, instinctive feel for the game a full-time special teams player acquires over the years. In an instant, Banjo can gather a punt's hang time, the distance between returner and gunners, the direction coverage is flowing.
Late in the first quarter Sunday, Banjo saw two possible outcomes as the football fell to Buffalo Bills punt returner Marcus Thigpen.
"Either he was going to get smacked," Banjo said. "Or he was going to break loose a little bit."
Thigpen didn't get smacked.
Instead, the third-year veteran split two linebackers — Brad Jones and Sam Barrington — and headed upfield for a 75-yard return touchdown. It was the only touchdown Green Bay allowed in a 21-13 loss to Buffalo at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday.
This one play was not the reason the Packers now sit outside the chase for home-field advantage come January. They have putrid offensive production to thank for that. The play highlighted a special teams unit that's becoming a troubling weakness as the regular-season winds down.
"It's been a frustrating second half of the season," punter Tim Masthay said. "First half of the season went pretty well, but the second half has been a bit of a struggle. We need to turn it around."
Special teams ace Jarrett Bush had his own perspective on the touchdown. He was the left gunner, on the side opposite where Thigpen found daylight. Two Bills blocked him, special attention given to the Packers' best special teamer.
Like Banjo, Bush has an instinctive knack for knowing when a special teams play is about to turn bad. On the field, he heard the crowd's roar increase. He saw Thigpen dodge and weave, avoiding his teammates.
Receiver Jarrett Boykin got a hand on Thigpen, but couldn't bring him down. Masthay dove at Thigpen's legs, but missed. Cornerback Demetri Goodson fought off two Bills blockers. He didn't reach Thigpen until the goal line.
For Bush, it was a helpless feeling.
"I'm trying to get back to him," Bush said. "Just being a football player, you know that he's not down yet. You still pursue it.
"I just couldn't run him down, along with 10 other of my buddies. They got us on that one."
Opponents have gotten the Packers special teams on several plays lately. Even before Sunday, Green Bay allowed two punt blocks this season, a troubling number considering the Packers have the fewest punts in the NFL.
They almost allowed a third punt block last week against the Atlanta Falcons.
"You've just got to make it simple for the players, I believe," Bush said. "Make it simple so they're not thinking out there, they're just playing football. I think that's the biggest thing. Make it black and white, make it simple in their blocking schemes, so we're able to play fast. I think when players play fast and not thinking — they're just playing — I think that's when we play our best football.
"Maybe they're thinking a little bit too much out there. They're maybe a little hesitant, but we'll see. We'll watch film, and maybe get some of the guys' point of views and see if we can correct some of the things, and move forward."
Statistically, even successful punts have missed the desired impact. Mastay ranked 22nd in the league with 38.9 net punting average through the season's first 13 games.
Masthay uncorked a 63-yard punt against the Bills on Sunday. He also had one punt stop inside the 5-yard line — Banjo was there to down the football — and there were no touchbacks.
Still, Thigpen's touchdown overshadowed everything else.
"It was certainly a huge play for them, a bad play for us," Masthay said. "Don't know what happened, but I'm the punter. So more hang time usually solves a lot of problems. From my perspective, I could've hit a higher ball and that would've probably eliminated the possibility of that happening.
"It wasn't a great punt. It wasn't a horrible punt, but it definitely could've been higher."
It wasn't the only special teams play that affected the scoreboard.
Packers kicker Mason Crosby was solid against the Bills, as he's been all season. He connected on 2-of-3 field goals, no small feat in Buffalo's strong winds. One was good from 45, the other from 34.
It was Buffalo's blocked field goal from 53 yards that gnawed at Crosby afterward.
After the game, Crosby thought he connected solidly on the kick. Still, he said, a kicker tends to drive the football a little lower when he's trying to maximize a field goal's length. Crosby had the wind helping him, but he said 53 yards was his longest, comfortable distance.
"It's one where I'm going to evaluate, look at it and move on because obviously the points — how it panned out — but that's why you play the game," Crosby said. "Who knows, if that goes through, what happens. Everything could've been a little different. But I definitely just move on and try to make that next one. I'm never happy whenever it doesn't go through."
The special teams issues that cost Green Bay 10 points — seven the Bills wouldn't have scored, three the Packers would've – were aggravating before Sunday. They just hadn't contributed to a loss.
Bush said he wouldn't call a meeting for special teams players but said it was time for leadership. Sunday's loss was frustrating enough. It might have cost Green Bay home-field advantage.
Nobody inside the Packers' locker room wanted to think about special teams blunders ending a promising season next month.
"I think it's definitely time to speak up and see what guys are really thinking out there," Bush said. "There are no second chances in football, unlike NBA Finals where they play seven games. We've got to get it right the first time. So we're going to make sure we detail our work, go over the film, make our corrections and go from there."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood.