GREEN BAY - The harrowing task of a punt returner reaches peak fragility with the ball in the air, and for the last three years the Green Bay Packers have put Micah Hyde in a position of vulnerability. He stands downfield and waits, eyes pointed skyward, as a legion of potential tacklers careens.
“All it takes is a flash of different color to know I have to run this way or run that way,” Hyde said of the opposing team’s jerseys. “Even if that guy might be blocked, it looks like it’s colored so I’m going the opposite way. It’s as simple as that.”
Simplistic as Hyde’s description may be, the flashes of color arrived faster in 2015 than at any point in his three-year career. Running lanes vanished as blockers flailed, and Hyde made more fair catches last season than in the previous two seasons combined. His average plummeted to 5.8 yards per return, second-worst among qualified players. And the Packers joined him in disappointment, thudding to a halt as the third-worst punt-return team in the league.
And so the Packers entered 2016 hell-bent on reviving their punt-return units, just as they entered 2015 with the goal of jolting their kickoff returns. Despite the nosedive in production, Hyde retains the support of his coaches and will remain atop the depth chart this season. His averages of 12.3 yards per return in 2013 and 15.8 in 2014 were among the best in the league, and in that time he also returned three punts for touchdowns.
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Instead, core special-teams players say the heightened emphasis stressed by coach Mike McCarthy and special-teams coordinator Ron Zook is designed to target multiple blocking deficiencies.
“I think Zook has done a good job this year of simplifying everything,” Hyde said. “Simple things like making a seven-man box or making an eight-man box; rushing or not rushing. Just letting everybody know exactly what they have to do and (telling them) that’s your guy. If he makes a play, it’s on you. It’s as simple as that. Define everybody’s role.”
Said Zook: “We haven’t changed a lot of scheme but we’ve really fine-tuned the techniques and put a lot more time on it.”
Multiple players said coaches identified the hold-up men as a significant weakness on the outside. Too often the opposing gunners ran unimpeded toward Hyde, and 44 percent of his returns finished at five yards or less.
One explanation for their struggles is youth and inexperience. A review of the first punt return from every game showed eight different “starters” at the hold-up position throughout the year. Four were either rookies or players in their first season: Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins, LaDarius Gunter and Jared Abbrederis. Two were second-year players: Demetri Goodson and Chris Banjo. And two were veterans: Sam Shields and Casey Hayward.
“Going from the first two years — and this is actually something we talked about — having somebody like (Jarrett Bush) who is doing it for tons of years and having (Davon House), someone who has done it for a bunch of years too, and then coming in with young guys, that was a big concern,” Hyde said. “How well are we going to hold up? How well are we going to do that?
“Believe it or not, there’s a trust factor in that. If I’m looking up in the air, I expect my guys in front of me to be helping me out and blocking their guys. I can’t necessarily see exactly what’s going on every single second. There’s a trust factor there. They gained — last year I trusted them. I honestly did. I trusted them. We felt like it was just a matter of time and it never happened.”
The Packers began the season with Shields, Banjo and Randall as their three hold-up men against the Chicago Bears. By Week 2, the preferred combination changed to Shields, Randall and Rollins. When Shields’ reps tapered in the second half of the season, Randall and Rollins were left with the majority of the duties.
“I had never done that before,” Rollins said, “So it was definitely trying.”
And the issues were evident even in the small sample size of 18 punts, the first in each game. In the home opener against Seattle, the two Seahawks gunners beat Randall and Shields to wind up as the closest players to Hyde, who was forced to wave for a fair catch. In Week 6 against the Chargers, safety Darrell Stuckey split a double team of Abbrederis and Randall to tackle Hyde after a gain of two yards. In Week 9 against the Panthers, the two gunners descended on Hyde after getting beyond the duo of Randall and Gunter.
When Randall and Rollins held up well on the opening punt against Washington, Goodson was flagged for an illegal block in the back.
“I would say it’s all about holding up the gunners on the outside, so maybe double teams on the outside,” Goodson said. “We’ve got Micah back there, and Micah can make the big fat guys in the middle miss. I feel like if we get just more emphasis on the hold-up guys outside, and we do a really good job, that’s all Micah needs is a good five or 10 yards to catch the ball and see the guys before he gets tackled.”
The Packers have dedicated extra time to hold-up skills during camp. Hyde said the players have worked with assistant special-teams coach Jason Simmons in that department, and their reps are reviewed by the whole return unit during meetings.
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Still, the hold-up players were not the only members of the punt-return unit whose blocking was problematic. Linebacker Joe Thomas, another core special teamer, said the coaches have focused a portion of their attention on what they call “the transition,” or the moment when players switch from rushing the punter to blocking for the returner.
There were times, Thomas said, when the rushers failed to hold their blocks and allowed members of the cover unit to race up the middle of the field. One such example took place on the first punt against the Lions at Lambeau Field, when personal protector George Winn sprinted untouched from behind the line of scrimmage directly to Hyde’s chest. The return measured one yard.
“I like to look at the top return teams in the league,” Hyde said. “If they have corners that can hold and you can put an (eight-man) box every time and put pressure on the punter, you’re going to have a really good return team."
The silver lining to last year’s baptism by fire is the added comfort with which the young players enter 2016. The most experienced are Randall and Rollins, who became staples of the special-teams units last year. And while both players are expected to have significant roles on defense, which may deter the coaches from giving them special-teams snaps, Randall and Rollins remained the primary hold-up men even as they began to receive starters’ reps at corner.
In that regard, the regression of 2015 could have laid the groundwork for future continuity. Six young players split time at the hold-up spot, and all of them could be on the roster again this season.
Perhaps they will make Hyde’s job a little less harrowing.
“Once you get out there on game day, it’s good,” Hyde said of his trust in hold-up players. “That’s their job. You expect them to do that. That’s what they get paid to do, so they better do it and do it well.”