Protection breaks down on kicking units

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY – Mason Crosby recoiled in mock horror Sunday night when the nightmare that was the Green Bay Packers’ protection units in 2014 was brought up.

Crosby had just been involved in a fire drill involving two blocked field-goal attempts in a practice before 66,397 at Lambeau Field. In addition, Tim Masthay came within inches of having a punt blocked.

“No, I’m not worried about it,” Crosby said. “I think we’re good. Those guys just made great plays.”

In the entire NFL in 2014, there were 61 blocked kicks. The Packers were responsible for seven, including three field goals and two extra points by the luckless Crosby.

The failure to protect the kicker undoubtedly played a large role in coach Mike McCarthy’s decision to fire special-teams coordinator Shawn Slocum and promote his assistant, Ron Zook, to the top job.

Last year, the protection was generally effective.

The field-goal kicking portion of practice closed the night. It was one of the most festive segments of the session. Loud music blared through the stadium and public-address announcer Bill Jartz emphasized “goooood” as Crosby connected on his first two from 33 and 37 yards.

On Crosby’s third try of 41 yards, Morgan Burnett split a pair of blockers on the right side for the block.

“I just jumped the gap,” Burnett said. “It’s fun, especially going against a great kicker like Mason.”

Crosby booted the next one from 44 yards and cornerback Josh Hawkins, a free-agent rookie from East Carolina with 4.39-second speed in the 40-yard dash, burst off the left outside and blocked it.

“He was rushing hard,” Crosby said.  “They were definitely pinning their ears back and coming.”

The protection unit regrouped and held firm, enabling Crosby to make his last four boots. The distances were 45, 49, 51 and 54 yards.

“Out here tonight I just wanted smooth tempo,” Crosby said. “I felt really good. I hit those (two blocks) really good, too.”

Early on, Masthay had two sky-scraping punts that had hang times of 5.16 and 5.03 seconds. Later, operating against a legitimate rush, his first punt again hung for 5.03.

It looked like the beginning of a huge night for Masthay, whose average hang time in 2015 was a paltry 4.09.

But then, under a huge rush, Masthay’s hurried punt had just 4.19 hang time. On his final punt, Masthay did well even to get the ball off with 3.65 hang because linebacker Jayrone Elliott was right in his face.

“I think it’s a combination of guys practicing the way they normally practice and other guys amping it up a little bit in front of a crowd,” cornerback Demetri Goodson said. “It’s just the early stages. We’ve got to work on the small kinks.”

Rick Lovato, the second-year long snapper, said the protection units should benefit from the intense work.

“Coach Zook really wanted to make everything difficult for us,” Lovato said. “He wanted to see what the younger guys can do and what I can do. He was throwing everything he possibly could, not only on punt but on field goal. Because we need to be ready for that.”

Unlike during a game, the protection units had to deal with rapid-fire reps and the loud music.

“It was nice the crowd was yelling,” Lovato said. “But coaches need to be able to coach because it is a practice. If guys are yelling over each other and can’t hear each other, that’s when problems come up.

“It will be a little bit slower in a game than during practice when it’s going 100 miles an hour rep after rep after rep.”

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