Packers' special teams in for repairs
GREEN BAY - As if the Green Bay Packers didn’t have enough flash fires sprouting up all over, they now can add kickoff coverage to the list of hot spots.
Under special teams coach Ron Zook, the Packers had flirted with disaster covering kicks early in the season, allowing returns of 42, 37 (twice) and 32 yards, but in the three games prior to Sunday hadn’t given one up longer than 21 yards.
Then Indianapolis Colts returner Jordan Todman took the opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown, setting the tone for what would be a 31-26 Packers loss at Lambeau Field. Just to make sure Zook’s day was really bad, Todman brought another kickoff back 61 yards to help set up a field goal.
On Monday, the Packers cut rookie safety Jermaine Whitehead, whose mistake helped create a huge hole for Todman to run through, and replaced him with practice squad fullback Joe Kerridge. Adding another fullback wouldn’t make sense unless it was for special-teams reasons, so it’s likely Kerridge will be added to the units this week.
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Incorporating rookies such as Whitehead and Kerridge into something as vital to the game as special teams is in every special-teams coach’s job description and it is especially so with the Packers because of general manager Ted Thompson’s draft-and-develop philosophy.
The Packers’ kickoff cover unit to start the game featured rookies Kentrell Brice, Marwin Evans, Blake Martinez, Trevor Davis, Kyler Fackrell and Whitehead. The margin for error with guys who are mostly playing on coverage units for the first time since they were freshmen in college isn’t very big.
“We’ve had so many moving parts,” Zook said. “I think that’s the thing. I always tell them, ‘You don’t come out of the womb covering kicks.’ It doesn’t happen that way. You’ve got to cover kicks and hopefully you get as much work in the preseason as you can.
“That’s what we did the second half, we went back to our original kickoff group. ‘The heck with this.’ We went back with our original group, minus (Aaron) Ripkowski, and we covered pretty well.”
Zook didn’t say why he had changed things up in the first place.
But Whitehead’s decision to run out of his lane in an attempt to slip a block caused him to wipe out Fackrell and create a huge hole on the right side. Coupled with the fact kicker Mason Crosby placed the ball too far in the middle of the field left the Packers at a severe disadvantage.
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“The kick wasn’t where it needed to be, which Mason will be the first to tell you, No. 1,” Zook said. “We get a guy that gets out of lane and gets thrown down into another guy who knocks him out of his lane.
“So we’ve got two guys out of their lanes, and then we get guys who don’t come across the blockers. In the National Football League, it’s bad enough when you have one mistake like that let alone two or three.”
The fact that the Colts nearly repeated the feat in the second quarter made things worse.
“Once again, we were making changes and moving people around and we’ve got people that didn’t fit it right,” Zook said of the 61-yard return. "We worked on it in practice and all we’ve got to do is fit the thing right and there’s nothing there.”
Now that an opponent has found a way to break the Packers’ kickoff coverage, you can bet others will test it in similar ways. It’s yet another area of the team that needs to go into the shop for repair work.