Packers experiment with Michael in return game

Michael Cohen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY - When Green Bay Packers running back Christine Michael trotted onto the field to receive the opening kickoff Saturday, it had been a while since football coaches at any level asked him to perform such a task.

A long while.

Michael, whom general manager Ted Thompson claimed on waivers earlier this season, returned three kickoffs for 64 yards during a win over the Minnesota Vikings. They were the first kickoff returns of his professional career spanning four years and three teams.

“I liked it,” special teams coordinator Ron Zook said Monday afternoon. “Coach (Mike McCarthy) and I talked a little bit last week and you love his energy; he’s sudden, there’s a lot of things you miss that you do in camp and all of that kind of stuff. He’s excited.”

One year after making significant strides in the return game — remember the emergence of Jeff Janis? — the Packers are in desperate need of invigoration. Through 15 games, they rank 26th in the league in yards per return (19.7) and their long of 40 yards ranks 24th.

The Packers tabbed Michael and wide receiver Janis as their two primary returners against the Vikings, though Michael did the bulk of the work. He fielded the opening kickoff a yard deep in the end zone and bolted up the middle some 30 yards. His other returns measured 22 and 18 yards, respectively.

A second-round pick by the Seattle Seahawks in 2013, Michael never had returned a kick or punt in the NFL prior to Saturday. His last attempt came on Oct. 30, 2010, as a sophomore at Texas A&M, and picked up 16 yards.

That runback was one of 10 kicks Michael returned during his four-year career with the Aggies. However, nine of them took place during his freshman season when Michael averaged 22.3 yards per return. That was seven years ago.

“To me, the biggest thing for a returner is they want to do it,” Zook said. “He’s a sudden-change guy. We talked about a few things that we were trying to get accomplished and he knew exactly where I was coming from. I liked that. When they want to do it, it’s usually a good sign.”

By using Michael, the Packers decreased the special teams reps of running back Ty Montgomery, who along with Janis had been a kick returner all season. Montgomery returned one kick for 21 yards against the Vikings but was used primarily on offense, where his prominence has grown in the absences of running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks.

Though his speed and aggression are encouraging, Michael’s performance was not without a blunder. He failed to make a clean catch on his third and final return of the game with the ball bouncing off his hands onto the turf. Michael scooped the ball with one hand and salvaged 18 yards.

“You’ve seen them all do that occasionally,” Zook said. “(But) once again, you’re right: They’ve got to catch it clean.”

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