Increased stability enhances Packers' special teams
Last in a nine-part Packers position-analysis series.
GREEN BAY – Every Green Bay Packers special teams coach during the Ted Thompson era faced the same challenge: The bulk of the players they were coaching were rookies.
It’s true that in the salary-cap era, many special teams coaches in the NFL face the same uphill climb in building productive units. But Thompson’s ongoing youth movement coupled with the team’s yearly injury epidemics have conspired to make life especially tough in Green Bay.
In 2017, however, Ron Zook finally had a solid core of second-, third- and fourth-year players who were available much of the season and the special teams performance reflected the increase in stability and experience.
Among the non-rookies who made up that core were linebacker Kyler Fackrell (84.3 percent of special teams snaps), safety Marwin Evans (78.8), wide receiver Jeff Janis (59.3), linebackers Joe Thomas (50.4) and Jake Ryan (50.2), safety Jermaine Whitehead (45.2) and wide receiver Trevor Davis (41.0).
After coming in 29th in Rick Gosselin’s annual special teams rankings in 2016, the Packers jumped to 16th last season.
Among the areas where the Packers made the most statistical improvement from ’16 to ’17 were:
» Kickoff return average (from 19.7 yards to 21.7)
» Punt return average (from 9.0 to 10.7)
» Gross punting average (from 43.2 to 44.4)
» Net punting average (from 39.1 to 41.6)
» Opponent punt return yardage (from 9.4 to 5.7)
» Opponent kickoff return yardage (from 26.3 to 22.2)
» Average drive start after kickoff (from 24.6-yard line to 25.2)
» Opponent average drive start after kickoff (from 26.6-yard line to 25.3)
By no means were the Packers’ special teams outstanding. As their ranking shows, they were middle of the pack. But given some of their rotten performances over the course of coach Mike McCarthy’s tenure, this was a significant improvement. Over McCarthy’s previous 11 seasons, his team’s average ranking was 22nd, so a 16th-place finish is progress.
In Zook’s three seasons as special teams coordinator, the Packers have ranked 17th, 29th and 16th. Many of the same players will be back next season, including kicker Mason Crosby, punter Justin Vogel and returner Davis.
Zook won’t have the same amount of input from assistant Jason Simmons, whom both McCarthy and Zook have praised as an excellent coach. Simmons was promoted to secondary coach and Maurice Drayton, formerly assistant special teams coach in Indianapolis, was hired to replace him.
But with the personnel Zook has returning and some momentum from last season, a lot will be expected of his units in 2018.
In his rookie season, Vogel set a club record for net average, punting 71 times while the coverage unit allowed just 29 returns for 164 yards. Much of the success for finishing sixth in the NFL in lowest opponent punt return average belongs to the team’s gunners. Everything starts with Janis, whose impact on punt coverage is immense. He regularly draws double teams and was almost unblockable because of his size and speed. Late in the year, Davis took on the other gunner role and took advantage of all the single blocks he received. The longest opponent return was 28 yards. Vogel owes both a huge debt for his punting success. Kickoff coverage wasn’t as good, but the longest return allowed was only 43 yards. Davis finished third in the NFL in punt returns with a 12.0 average and eighth in kickoff returns with a 22.8 average. He set up the game-tying score against Cleveland in regulation with a winding, 65-yard punt return.
Kicker Mason Crosby saw his field goal percentage drop from 86.7 in ’16 to 78.9 and his field goal attempts from 30 to 19. Crosby hardly could be held responsible for all the kicking woes. Crosby went through three long snappers starting with Derek Hart in training camp, veteran Brett Goode at the beginning and end of the regular season and Taybor Pepper in the middle. Crosby hit his first six of the season, then went through a 5-for-8 stretch with all three misses coming with Pepper as the long snapper. As good as Davis’ statistics were, his decision-making was awful. He called fair catches when there was room to run, he failed to catch short balls and fielded punts too close to the goal line. Penalties were a problem all season. A total of 27 flags were dropped on special teams, including five on rookie safety Josh Jones. According to NFLpenalties.com, the Packers had the sixth-most special teams penalties accepted (23) in the NFL.
As reliable as Goode is, the Packers need to find a younger, more athletic long snapper. The team signed Zach Triner to a futures deal and will work with him and Pepper in the offseason. General manager Brian Gutekunst will have to be on the lookout for help but as usual, he’ll have Goode on his speed dial.
Mason Crosby: It was a forgettable year for the team’s all-time leading scorer. He was hardly a factor as the offense sputtered under backup quarterback Brett Hundley. His streak of 10 straight seasons with 100 or more points ended. The most critical kick he missed came at Pittsburgh when McCarthy asked him to do what no kicker ever had done: hit from 57 yards at Heinz Field. Crosby missed and the Packers went on to lose a winnable game. He did hit a critical 50-yarder in the victory at Chicago and a game-winning 27-yarder in overtime against Cincinnati. Crosby deserves to have a long snapper ready to go come training camp so that he has time to work with him. On kickoffs, Crosby ranked 20th in touchbacks with 36. His onside kick at Detroit in Week 17 was a thing of beauty. It was his seventh successful onside kick since 2010, the most in the NFL during that time. Grade: C+
Justin Vogel: The prospect of punting in the NFL never fazed the rookie free agent from Miami and he showed from the beginning that he had the leg and the mind to make it. The most encouraging part of his performance was his ability to handle the cold weather. It’s one thing to turn balls over on a 70-degree day and another to do it on a 10-degree day. That’s not to say Vogel did it consistently. He had his share of clunkers. But his gross average was the highest by a Packers punter since Tim Masthay averaged 44.6 in 2013, and he registered just two touchbacks, the fewest by a Packers punter with at least 70 attempts in a season. Vogel benefited tremendously from Janis’ coverage, which covered up his tendency to leave the ball too far in the middle of the field. He can’t count on the coverage being that good next season and must work on his directional punting. Grade: B-
Brett Goode: Played in 10 games and did a solid job with his long snaps. Proved to be a warrior when he badly pulled a hamstring early in the Cincinnati game and continued to play. He limped down the field in coverage, but still managed to complete his snap on Crosby’s game-winning field goal against the Bengals. After being put on injured reserve, he was released, then re-signed Nov. 14. At 33, he doesn’t get down the field like he used to (he didn't make a single tackle). But if the coverage unit continues to play this well, maybe it doesn’t matter. Grade: C
Taybor Pepper: Played in four games after Goode got hurt and was shaky. His inaccuracy caused problems for Crosby and Vogel. Eventually was put on injured reserve after breaking his foot in practice. At 6-4, 245 pounds, he would be an ideal athlete running down the middle of the field in punt coverage. The Packers are hoping he finds himself the way former long snapper Rick Lovato did after being released in 2016. Lovato hooked on with the Philadelphia Eagles and now owns a Super Bowl ring. Grade: F
Jacob Schum: After serving as the Packers' punter in 2016, he was waived injured last summer because of a back problem and spent the 2017 season on injured reserve. Grade: Incomplete