GREEN BAY - In the early stages of Jeff Janis’ rebirth as a special teams star, the Green Bay Packers wide receiver absorbed a lesson in respect from coordinator Ron Zook in December 2015.
At 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighing 219 pounds, and with a time of 4.42 seconds in the 40-yard dash, Janis had the ideal traits to hack through confrontations on the perimeter and use his speed to cover punts. He morphed into a legitimate weapon from the gunner position, and opposing teams responded by dedicating multiple hold-up men to Janis’ side of the field.
“I think that’s something that I told Jeff when he came to the sideline,” Zook said on Dec. 21, 2015, a day after the Packers defeated the Oakland Raiders. “I said, ‘Jeff, that’s a compliment. Now you’ve got to figure out a way. That’s not the answer. You’ve got to beat it.’
“But I think the first time he kind of set the tempo on the very first punt where they did double him. And I think the fact that we were in a slot formation and they doubled both guys kind of tells you at least that we’ve gotten their attention.”
Two years later, the Packers have built a double-barreled attack on their punt-coverage unit through the addition of rookie safety Josh Jones, who lined up as the second gunner in the regular-season opener against Seattle. Suddenly, what used to be an easy decision about where to deploy the double team had transformed into a game of Russian roulette: If Janis’ size and strength don’t hurt you, it’s very possible that Jones’ combination will.
“He’s been doing it; I’m new to it,” Jones said. “The more comfortable I get, the better I’ll make our punt coverage. I think we’ll be great.”
While Janis remained a steady presence for Zook, the second gunner spot had resembled a revolving door over the last year and a half. The list of players who took their turn includes Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins, Demetri Goodson, Trevor Davis, Josh Hawkins and Makinton Dorleant, just to name a few.
Nearly all of those players can match Janis in the speed department, but strength is another issue. Referees around the league are notorious for turning a blind eye to the battles between gunners and hold-up men on the perimeter. The unwritten rule is that most of the actual rules don’t apply.
“That’s one spot where they’re going to hold you, and it’s not going to get called,” Janis said. “So being able to use your strength and your long arms is something that we really stress doing. Because like I said, they’re just going to hold you and you’ve got to get off of them.”
By inserting Jones into the starting lineup, Zook has paired Janis with a player of equal size and strength. One of those players will surely attract a double team each week, but now the Packers are confident they can win the one-on-one matchup on the other side.
Against Seattle, a team known for its physical play, Jones drew the double team every time he lined up a gunner, even though it was the first game of his career. The Seahawks had likely seen the tape of his performance against the Los Angeles Rams in the final exhibition game — Jones toasted the hold-up men repeatedly — and adjusted their plans accordingly.
“They probably were looking at what I did in preseason,” Jones said. “I wasn’t surprised.”
It meant that Jones did battle with cornerback Neiko Thorpe and free safety Bradley McDougald all afternoon, and Janis drew the single coverage from cornerback Shaquill Griffin on the other side. As Jones ran wide during the Packers’ first punt, Thorpe shoved him so far into the Seattle bench that he crashed into multiple players on his way back to the field.
Meanwhile, Griffin failed to lay so much as a finger on Janis, who flew in and forced returner Tyler Lockett to settle for a fair catch.
In total the Packers forced Lockett into four fair catches on five punts. Mission accomplished.
“It’s a little tough, man, but that’s why it’s the NFL,” Jones said. “You’ve got to fight through.”
Given the similarities between Jones and Janis, the Packers have more freedom in what they do schematically this season. Their gunners are interchangeable, and Zook gives them a platform to identify matchups they like.
“After every rep we kind of go over what they’re doing,” Janis said. “Maybe if (Jones) feels like he can be better on one side than the other, you know, maybe he’ll take that side this time and I’ll go to the other side next time. We just try to keep them on their toes so they don’t know what’s coming every single time.
“I think we’re taking a step in pretty much all our coverage units. (Gunner) is just one area where I think we have the potential to be really good.”