Punt returns a fundamental problem for Packers

Michael Cohen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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PACKERS17 PACKERS  - Green Bay Packers wide receiver Trevor Davis (11) return a punt during the 2nd quarter of the Green Bay Packers game against the Dallas Cowboys at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. on Sunday, October 16, 2016. Mike De Sisti / MDESISTI@JOURNALSENTINEL.COM

GREEN BAY — Cornerback Sherrick McManis of the Chicago Bears lined up at gunner as his team prepared to punt early in the fourth quarter. Across from him stood Green Bay Packers cornerback Josh Hawkins, a rookie with blistering speed. Hawkins ran the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds.

When the ball was snapped, McManis gave no fake at the line of scrimmage and Hawkins made no attempt to jam. McManis stuck his left foot in the ground and launched forward into an all-out sprint toward Trevor Davis, the punt returner for the Packers, while Hawkins inexplicably lost ground as he lagged behind.

The ball arced 44 yards downfield as Davis, a rookie wide receiver, waited until the last possible second to signal for a fair catch. McManis had closed to within four or five feet when Davis finally flailed his right arm. He wanted desperately a chance for a return.

“I definitely try to almost try a lot of them,” Davis said. “You can tell I kind of give late hand (waves) to try and see at the last second if I can get it. Of course you want to go out there and you want to catch every single one of them because if you do, you have the chance to get your team yards. Football is a game of yards and possessions. Special teams is a huge part of that.”

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Or at least that was the plan when coach Mike McCarthy and special teams coordinator Ron Zook dedicated more time to punt return units during training camp. They sought to reanimate a stiffened corpse after the Packers ranked 30th in yards per return last season. But any such improvements have been nonexistent, and through six games the Packers are last in the league in punt return yards, 22nd in average yards per return and dead last in total attempts with fewer than 0.7 returns per game.

As for Davis, who inherited the job from defensive back Micah Hyde earlier this season, he ranks 20th in average yards per return among players with at least four attempts.

“We need to do a better job in the punt return, particularly once we establish the rush,” McCarthy said Thursday morning. “The technique and fundamentals of getting back and being more violent with our hands and being more aggressive as we come back and let our punt returner, particularly Trevor, get off the spot. … We’d like to get some more opportunities to have some returns.”

McCarthy’s assessment echoes exact problem areas identified by core special teamers during the second week of training camp. At that point, players highlighted poor transitions from rushing to blocking and subpar results from the hold-up men — players whose job is to stuff opposing gunners like McManis — as the primary reasons behind Hyde’s vertiginous regression in 2015.

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After averaging 12.3 yards per return in 2013 and 15.8 in 2014, Hyde’s number withered to 5.8 yards per return on 27 attempts last year. He ranked tied for 45th among players with at least five returns.

Almost nothing has changed this season.

“Obviously it’s not where we want it to be,” Zook said. “The thing we’ve got to do is we’ve got to hold up the outside guys. People are causing us the same problems that we try to cause problems (for them).

“It’s one part of the game that’s officiated a little bit differently.  … They’ve just got to play through that stuff. They’ve just got to keep playing hard. Once again, I’m hoping that we’re going to get this thing on track the way it’s supposed.”

Cornerback Demetri Goodson, who is one of the Packers’ best special teams players, was more blunt in his analysis.

“I feel like other teams just teach holding,” Goodson said. “I feel like the refs can only call it so many times. They’ll just hold you. I mean, the refs call it sometimes but they’re not going to call it every time. That’s what teams are doing a lot, just holding guys, literally just holding them.”

To be clear, there are certainly other factors beyond the hold-up men that contribute to poor return numbers. The Packers opened their season in Jacksonville beneath a relentless sun that impaired the vision of returners. They’ve been pinned deep in their own territory where returns are less common than in other parts of the field. Their top returner, Davis, is a rookie who admits he’s still adjusting to the talent of NFL punters.

The collective results are 13 fair catches, the fourth-highest total in the league.

“I would say it’s still a work in progress,” said linebacker Jayrone Elliott, another core special teamer. “We didn’t really get a return the first couple games because of the weather and some of the punts. I think when we’ve had opportunities we’ve made the most of them.”

The next step is making more of them.

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