GREEN BAY – If Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy seems a little distracted the next couple of days it might be because he can’t shake the feeling that something is going to go wrong in Seattle on Thursday.
Most likely on special teams.
The ghosts of disasters past dance all over CenturyLink Field, the site of the Green Bay Packers’ epic NFC Championship Game failure on Jan. 18, 2015, and their next game.
In a 31-12 victory over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, special teams could have been the reason the Packers fell to 3-5-1, just like it could have been the reason they improved to 7-1-1 if things had gone a little differently against the New England Patriots, Los Angeles Rams and Detroit Lions.
Everyone in the Packers organization who was present at CenturyLink four years ago should be over the fake-field goal touchdown and Brandon Bostick's onsides debacle that snatched away a Super Bowl opportunity.
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But as they head back to the scene of that disaster, all of them have every reason to wonder if they are set up for the same kind of disappointment based on the special teams events that have plagued the team this season.
Take away a blocked punt, a fumbled punt return and a failure to stop a fake punt and the Packers had a pretty good special teams day. Their kickoff and punt coverage was outstanding, kicker Mason Crosby improved his consecutive field goal streak to nine and they pulled off a fake punt of their own.
But once again they did not eliminate costly special teams mistakes, which seem to be a part of their personality. It is who they are no matter who is running the unit, and while they avoided a disaster against the Dolphins, the performance seemed to be in line with much of what has occurred this season.
“We played well, we had some good returns, the kickoff team played really well, we had a successful fake,” said linebacker Kyler Fackrell. “But (special teams coach Ron) Zook always says, ‘You’re just remembered by your worst play, especially on special teams.
“You just have one chance. It’s one play.”
If it were just one play or just this one game, McCarthy might feel a whole heck of a lot better about his special teams going into Seattle. But this has been a season-long issue and the Packers might very well be in control of the NFC instead of 4-4-1 had it not been for special teams.
In case you forgot:
- Crosby missed four goals in a 31-23 defeat to the Detroit Lions at Ford Field Oct. 7.
- Kickoff returner Ty Montgomery ended any chance the Packers had of a game-winning touchdown when he disobeyed orders and returned a kickoff that he fumbled in a 29-27 loss to the Los Angeles Rams at the LA Coliseum Oct. 28.
- Rookie tight end Robert Tonyan roughed the punter after a key defensive stop deep inside New England Patriots territory late in the third quarter with the game tied in a 31-17 defeat at Gillette Stadium.
Those are three losses that had a chance to be victories if the special teams unit could just find a way to stop shooting itself in its cleat.
“We have a lot of young guys,” said defensive back Tramon Williams, who fumbled after getting sandwiched at the end of a 20-yard punt return. “It just takes reps and guys have to be smart. I think we’ll get there.”
One thing is clear, it’s not a case of poor talent.
All you had to do was watch the kickoff coverage unit to see how tough it is to block guys like Josh Jones, Oren Burks, James Crawford, Raven Greene and Tony Brown. The average drive start for the Dolphins on six kickoff returns was the 22-yard line and the average return was 19.4 yards.
Crosby placed the ball beautifully in the corner of the end zone as part of the plan to cool off Miami’s red-hot return team. Jakeem Grant came into the game averaging 32.3 yards per kickoff return and 16.3 yards per punt return.
“I think we took a big step today,” Crosby said.
Maybe, but you have to take the bad with the good and there was enough bad to definitely keep Zook up at night.
Miami cut Green Bay’s lead to 7-3 after Williams’ fumble and then trailing 14-9 at halftime, blocked rookie JK Scott’s punt on the first series of the third quarter, setting up the Dolphins for another field goal.
“We’ll have to look at the film to see what happened,” said Burks, who is on the punt coverage unit. “I don’t think it was a mental error. I think it was just a good rush. We’ll clean it up.”
Later in the quarter, with the Packers up 28-12, the defense stopped the Dolphins a yard short of the first down, forcing them to punt. The Packers left the middle open and upback Leonte Carroo took a direct snap and ran for a 14-yard gain.
Greene was lined up in the middle and said he wasn’t expecting a fake. There wasn’t much he could do about it since rules prohibit a rusher from lining up over the center. Zook didn’t appear to have personnel in the game that could have discouraged the Dolphins from pulling off the fake.
“I think guys were pretty locked in, pretty focused,” Fackrell said. “But we have to – especially on the punt, it’s so crucial – clean that up.”
McCarthy and Zook will have the option of bringing back returner Trevor Davis off injured reserve this week to provide a boost to what has been an ordinary return game. Both feel he can be one of the NFL’s top returners, but he hasn’t played in a game since the exhibition season and he has only had three days of practice to work himself back in football shape.
The one thing the Packers do know is that the Seahawks have been one of the better special teams units in the NFL under head coach Pete Carroll and it’s very difficult to get the best of them.
Given the Packers’ history in Seattle, they know what they’re up against. But given the struggles the offense has had this season, the Packers need to start winning another phase of the game and special teams is where they can make some big gains.
But as this season has shown, they can’t help themselves when it comes to messing up.