Janis spearheads Packers' special teams surge

Michael Cohen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jeff Janis (83) gets loose on the sidelines before the game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field.

GREEN BAY - For all of the excitement generated by Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jeff Janis a season ago, when he thrived as a one-man wrecking crew on special teams and had the game of his life in the playoffs, this year’s second act was a slow drip toward the mundane.

He was mired in a crowded receiving room, so playing time was meager in certain weeks. He was the focal point of opposing special teams coordinators, so his moments of magic were schematically corralled.

“Whatever the coaches want me to do I’m just taking it in and doing my job to the best of my ability,” Janis said Monday.

But the night before, as the Packers ran away from the New York Giants in a playoff game at Lambeau Field, things finally started to click.

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In what was arguably his most influential performance of the season, Janis spearheaded a special teams effort that steadily tilted field position toward the Packers and stifled one of the best returners in the league. Steady kickoffs from Mason Crosby and precision punts from Jacob Schum handed additional challenges to a Giants’ offense that was already challenged enough. The Packers began six drives at their own 40-yard line or better, while the Giants did the same just once.

“I thought our coverage units just played with great discipline,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I thought the ball placement for the most part was very good. … Once again this is about fundamentals. What we do is not new scheme (and we) didn’t change things up. But I thought our energy was outstanding on special teams, and to win the field position battle the way we did was a big part of our success.”

Aside from the kicker and punter, Janis was the obvious standout. Though the Packers ended the regular season ranked 23rd in the league in kickoff returns, Janis used a running start to gallop 33 yards through the middle. It was his longest return of the season and nearly 14 yards farther than the Packers’ season average.

His previous long was 28 yards against both the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans. A year ago he had three returns of 45 yards or more.

“We know we’ve been close the past couple games, just a block or two away,” Janis said. “Even in that game we still were just one or two blocks away from taking it all the way back. It’s going to happen for us one of these games. We’ve just got to keep working.

“We’re doing the same things this year as we were doing last year. Just one of those things that you’ve got to keep working on and eventually it’s going to hit. It’s a tough job to do to block guys on a kickoff return.”

Perhaps more important than his ability as a returner is his penchant for disrupting punt returns with excellent coverage. Such was the case Sunday when the Packers limited Dwayne Harris, a Pro Bowl special teams player, to 4 total yards on three returns.

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Janis, who plays as one of the two gunners for special teams coordinator Ron Zook, had been contained for most of the year by opposing return units that dedicated two players to jamming him at the line of scrimmage. He made only five special teams tackles this season after leading the Packers with 11 in 2015.

Against the Giants, however, he played with more aggression and careened down the field to combine for two tackles that held Harris to no gain and 1 yard, respectively, on a pair of punts.

“I think I was a little more physical this week than I was last week against the Lions,” Janis said. “That was something I wanted to make sure that I (did). They shut me down pretty good. Just trying to be more physical this game and use my hands a little bit more. Worked out pretty well.

“I’ve been getting double-teamed quite a bit. That’s the biggest thing. Just working on defeating double teams in practice and working on using the hands more, being a little more physical.”

The other half of Janis’ success belongs to Schum, the punter claimed off waivers by general manager Ted Thompson near the end of training camp.

Schum, who grew accustomed to cold weather during his college days at Buffalo, kicked very well in single-digit temperatures. His six attempts produced a net average of 41.2 yards per kick that would have broken the franchise record of 40.3 set by Tim Masthay last season. Three of his punts landed inside the 12-yard line.

“I felt like I hit the ball pretty solid,” Schum said. “Not every ball was perfect and how I wanted to hit them, but in single-degree temperatures and being able to hit the ball as well as I did, it’s always nice to show them again that I’m a cold-weather punter and I can handle it. Our guys did a hell of a job to be able to run down there and really contain the returner and come out of that game with practically no return yards against us; that’s a huge win for us.

“I got here for a reason so I’m just believing in myself. It’s been going really great. I feel like I’ve been performing pretty well. And again, my guys have been doing an awesome job helping me out and I’m helping them out. It’s just all around a great unit.”

Then there’s Crosby, whose kickoff accuracy has handcuffed opposing returners in recent weeks. Remember when he kept the ball away from Cordarrelle Patterson of the Minnesota Vikings on Christmas Eve?

And against the Giants he was mostly solid once again, limiting Harris and Odell Beckham Jr. to a long return of 31 yards. But his highlight was a sideline squeaker that drew return man Bobby Rainey into no man’s land. Rainey lost his balance and fell out of bounds at the 3-yard line.

“It just gives us that little bit of momentum,” Janis said of the collective special teams performance. “Just kind of gives us that confidence knowing we can go in and shut down guys that are really good special teams players.”

And it happened at exactly the right time.

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