GREEN BAY – With his feet planted in Lambeau Field’s end zone, it didn’t take long for Green Bay Packers rookie punter Justin Vogel to feel pressure in his first NFL game.
On Vogel’s third career punt, the Packers were backed against their goal line. From the 8, they needed their rookie to flip field position. All he had to do was boot a distance punt high enough for Seattle Seahawks receiver Tyler Lockett to not have a big return.
Easier said than done.
Vogel picked the right time for his best punt of the game. The ball traveled 57 yards with an unofficial 5.05-second hang time, retreating Lockett to the Seahawks’ 36-yard line. Lockett, a former All-Pro returner, picked up only 7 yards. An illegal-block penalty cost the Seahawks 10 more.
For Vogel, the rookie officially aced his first big NFL test.
“It’s always good to live up to the moment,” Vogel said. “Because our defense was playing very well that game, so I knew I needed to keep them out of field-goal range. Because the worst thing you can do is, say a 40-yard punt isn’t bad, but they’re on the 45-yard line. So for one first down, they can kick a field goal. Well, on the other 45-yard line, they need two or three.
“I knew our defense wasn’t even allowing two first downs in that moment of the game. So I basically helped eliminate points on that drive.”
In a minuscule sample size, Vogel’s 43.8-yard average on five punts ranked 19th in the NFL this week. But raw distance can be deceiving. With the Packers determined to prevent Lockett from making big plays, Vogel said the game plan was to limit his returns.
That meant instead of kicking as far as he could, Vogel needed to lift his punts high. His unofficial 4.57-second average hang time was exactly what special teams coordinator Ron Zook wanted. Two of Vogel’s punts hung more than five seconds.
Most importantly, Lockett returned only one of Vogel’s punts. Vogel's average net of 42.4 yards ranked 10th in the NFL this week, and his four fair catches were tied for second.
“I don’t need to try to boost personal stats,” Vogel said. "(I didn't) try to hit it 50, 60 yards and then let him run it back 20 yards and take the chance. Just kick it 45 yards and guarantee no chance of returning the ball. So I think that’s the easiest way to do it, just hit the ball in the air and let our gunners go down and force fair catches. Then it will be easy, and there will be no concerns of big plays on the other side.”
Vogel couldn’t have executed the game plan to limit Lockett better, but his lone distance punt still stood out.
The Packers long have preferred directional punters with good hang times who limit opposing return games. Yet that focus has prevented them from signing a punter who can flip field position with their offense backed up.
If Vogel can do both, he’ll be in Green Bay a long time.
“As a scheme,” Vogel said, “we like to play very low return (rate). High, directional kicks. So a high hang time directionally is the best kick they could want. I think as a young guy, they see a lot of potential. The kicks that I’ve hit really well, I think I can kick with the best in the league. So obviously as a young guy, you try to have consistency and repeat those.”