GREEN BAY - Fans who stomached Sunday’s game between the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints would be forgiven if they felt pangs of déjà vu every time punter Justin Vogel trotted onto the field. He was called upon five times in a losing effort, and three of those instances were marred by penalties — all of them charged to rookie safety Josh Jones.
“Josh, he’s a high-strung,” special teams coordinator Ron Zook said earlier this week. “He wants to play well, he wants to do a great job. I think that’s what you want, you want a guy to do that.
“Once again, we’ve got to keep him calmed down. Just do your job, don’t try to get outside of yourself. Once again, you’d rather be able to shut it down a little bit than have to turn him up. That’s the one thing about Josh: You don’t have to speed him up.”
It would be tempting to dismiss Jones’ flag fest as a poor showing from an inexperienced player, a one-time mistake exacerbated over four quarters in a game the Packers would like to forget. In reality, Sunday’s display reflects a larger and more serious problem for a team whose margin for error is razor-thin in the absence of starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Through seven games, the Packers lead the NFL in special-teams penalties with 15 and have given up the fourth-most special-teams penalty yards in the league, according to nflpenalties.com. Jones, a second-round pick from North Carolina State, is responsible for 27 percent of the infractions after he was flagged for illegal motion, fair-catch interference and a false start on three separate punts against the Saints. It’s a major reason the Saints’ average field position was 12 yards better than that of the Packers last weekend.
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“Don’t like them,” coach Mike McCarthy said of the penalties this week. “Special teams is too high. We had eight penalties (enforced against New Orleans), 10 called. We had five in the second half, especially after where I felt we were (playing OK) at halftime. We need to be better.”
While the majority of penalties can be avoided, the Packers divide their infractions into two categories for the sake of teaching moments. Combative penalties are mistakes that happen within the physical confines of the game. These types of flags include holding, illegal hands to the face, illegal blocks above the waist and several others.
Procedural penalties, meanwhile, are things that happen because of blatant errors unrelated to the opposition. This category includes things such as false starts, illegal shifts, illegal formations and offsides.
Herein lies the source of frustration for McCarthy and Zook. Of the 18 total special-teams penalties committed by the Packers — three of which were declined — 10 of them were procedural in nature. The list includes two false starts, two delays of game, two illegal formations, one unsportsmanlike conduct, one illegal motion and two offside penalties.
“Coach Zook and coach McCarthy are big on special-teams penalties and, well, penalties period,” said inside linebacker Joe Thomas, who has been a core member of the special-teams units for the last two years. “It depends on what kind of penalty it is. If it’s a combat penalty like maybe holding or something like that, you might get away with that. But if it’s disciplinary like offside or illegal shift or something mentally dumb, that’s when they get angry about them.
“Special teams is all about field position anyways, so once you get a penalty, that really stretches the field. It’s most definitely big.”
Another common element in the Packers’ penalty barrage is age. Special teams around the league are built on youth, and most teams have very few veterans who take snaps on a regular basis. For the Packers, wide receiver Jeff Janis is the only player with four or more years of experience who has at least 60 special-teams snaps this season.
The penalty breakdown reflects youthful inexperience:
» Safety Josh Jones: offside on a kickoff, false start on a punt, fair-catch interference, illegal motion on a punt.
» Punter Justin Vogel: delay of game, delay of game.
» Running back Jamaal Williams: holding on a kickoff return.
» Safety Marwin Evans: false start on a punt, illegal block above the waist.
» Cornerback Josh Hawkins: illegal block above the waist.
» Nose tackle Kenny Clark: illegal formation on PAT.
» Safety Kentrell Brice: offside on a kickoff.
» Outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell: illegal block above the waist.
» Cornerback Davon House: running into the kicker on a field goal.
» Inside linebacker Jake Ryan: running into the kicker on a field goal.
» Wide receiver Jeff Janis: illegal block above the waist.
» Unsportsmanlike conduct against the Atlanta Falcons after PAT.
» Illegal formation on a kickoff against the Chicago Bears.
The Packers plan to review all of their special-teams penalties during the bye week in hopes of cleaning up their mistakes down the stretch.
“We’re going through every single penalty,” Zook said, “because I want to say, ‘Is there something that we’re not coaching? Is there a drill we can do to help us that way?’ What I think we’re going to see is we’re pretty much on course with everybody else.
“We’ve had some other penalties (like) the offside on a kickoff. That can’t happen. We always talk about foolish penalties. We cannot have foolish penalties. We can’t have a motion penalty on a punt. Those are the things that we all know. Those can’t happen.
“I think the ones (like) holding and so forth, block in the back, that’s all going to even out over the course of the year. They’re going to call some that probably shouldn’t be called; they’re going to not call some that probably should be called."
But for now, the Packers sit atop the league in special-teams mistakes.