GREEN BAY – If there’s one thing every good special teams unit enjoys, it's a little bit of luck.
A bounce here. A roll there. A gust of wind at the right time. A doink off the goal post. They are all multipliers when it comes to the success rate of any NFL special teams group.
So when he was asked about his coverage units and their performance over the past 21 games, Ron Zook chose to pay homage to the NFL gods and not take any credit for the dramatic drop in big plays against the Packers.
“I think No. 1 being fortunate,” Zook said, when asked what the key has been in avoiding back-breaking returns over the course of his short tenure as special teams coach.
“Ball placement,” Zook identified as No. 2. “We always talk about ball placement both for the punt and kickoff. You try to constrict the field a little bit so you don’t give them the whole field to cover.
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“The guys have done a good job of getting down there and covering. They’ve taken a lot of pride in it. We talk a lot about it. (Assistant) Jason (Simmons) and I both come from a defensive background, so we’re always talking about cover, cover, cover.”
Zook’s units led the NFL in lowest punt return average allowed (4.2 yards) last season, thanks in large part not to his punter but to his cover unit, which featured a budding star gunner in receiver Jeff Janis. The longest punt return allowed last season was 23 yards and only seven times did a returner manage 10 or more yards.
Through three games this year, opponents are averaging 10.0 on punt returns, but with only three returns against them this year, the Packers have plenty of time to bring that number down.
Under former special teams coach Shawn Slocum, the units were often solid, but too many times they allowed opponents an explosive return. Numerous times, those returns swung momentum in games and put the defense in a precarious situation.
Using 15 or more yards on a punt return and 30 or more on a kickoff return as the measurement for explosive gains, statistics show there has been a significant drop in both categories under Zook and far fewer times when there’s been at least one of each in a single game.
The number of games where there was at least one 30-plus kickoff return was 10 in 2014, 10 in ’13, nine in ’12 and six in ’11. The number of games with at least a 15-plus punt return was one in ’14, six in ’13, five in ‘12 and five in ’11.
In 21 games under Zook, there have been eight explosive gains on kickoffs and four on punt returns.
From 2011-14, the number of times there were an explosive kickoff return and punt return in the same game was one in ’14, four in ’13, five in ’12 and two in ’11.
Under Zook, there have been two.
“I think last year was a very good year for us in the area of coverage,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “I thought it was one of the strengths of our special teams. I think this year we’re off to a good start. Ball placement is a very important component of that, and our guys are doing a good job.”
Zook has faced the same challenge Slocum did in having to prep a lot of draft choices and undrafted rookies for his coverage units. The Packers always will be forced to use young players because of general manager Ted Thompson’s draft and develop philosophy.
But Zook does have some mainstays such as Jayrone Elliott, Chris Banjo, Micah Hyde, Joe Thomas and Janis working coverage. They form the veteran wing of the six core special teams units and keep the standards high.
They have taken to Zook, whose enthusiasm is unmistakable, but rarely consists of uncontrollable outbursts even though he’s a former college head coach and well-versed in getting his players’ attention.
“Really, he’s like a parent,” Elliott said. “You don’t want to disappoint him. Guys buy into what he’s doing and listen to him. You’re seeing guys actually want to play special teams now.”
Zook’s schemes aren’t exotic, but his teaching methods mirror that of a defensive coordinator. Since the special teams are made up of a lot of linebackers and defensive backs, Zook tries to make playing for him an extension of their full-time job.
There are techniques and tactics that are born from defensive schemes, making the transition to special teams easier for guys who were stars in college and were focused 99 percent of the time on their position assignments.
“I think any time there’s carryover, coach is big on that,” Zook said of McCarthy. “I think it’s great any time there’s carryover, even in terminology for guys, offensively and defensively. That’s where you get guys, you say a word and that word relates to something that they do on offense or defense.
“Once again because you’re coaching a lot of times guys that hadn’t played a lot of special teams so you try to get as much carryover as you can. There’s no question that if you’re thinking, it slows you down. We want them playing as fast as they can play.”
Zook is lucky to have a kicker as good as Mason Crosby, both for scoring points and placing kickoffs. He’s still working in new punter Jake Schum and incorporating rookies like Marwin Evans, Kentrell Brice, Kyler Fackrell and Blake Martinez into the cover units.
Any special teams coach worth his weight knows he’s one kickoff or punt return for a touchdown away from being on the hot seat. But so far, Zook’s body of work in coverage has been good, and he would like to expand the success to his team’s own return game.
He has plenty planned for his guys when they get back from the bye.
“You talk about it, you understand it, but even though these guys are professionals, if they don’t practice it, they don’t play — you’ve got to do it,” Zook said. “So you try to give them some of those things that you feel like ‘Hey, we’ve got to make sure we’re sharp in this area.’
“We work a lot on the return game. I know that was a concern people may have is about the return game, but if you look at the opportunities, we haven’t had a lot of opportunities. But I’m still excited. We’re going to get one.”