GREEN BAY – Defense and special teams.
If that is the formula the Green Bay Packers are going to use to win football games this season, they are off to a good start.
And if punter JK Scott is going to perform the way he did in a 10-3 upset of the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Thursday night, they might not even need defense.
OK, that’s an exaggeration, but it isn’t going too far to say Scott controlled field position all night long, which is what general manager Brian Gutekunst thought he could do when he drafted him out of Alabama in the fifth round of the 2018 draft.
It was a spectacular showing for a guy who had a mediocre rookie season. But it wasn’t a total surprise given his recent performance. About two weeks into training camp, Scott seemed to find his Zen place and his punting went from pretty good to potentially game-changing.
In the second exhibition game, he averaged more than 50 yards per punt and reached 5.0-second or better hang time on all five attempts. He found consistency after that and finished the exhibition season with a 48.0 gross average and a 41.2 net average and nine punts inside the 20 on 22 attempts.
At the end of camp, Scott explained that he had made a concerted effort to stop trying to crush the ball and to relax. Every time he tried to put a little something extra on the ball, it seemed to backfire.
So, he just swung away freely against the Bears and stopped trying to press.
“I felt pretty good tonight,” Scott said after the game. “That’s what I’m doing — when I relax I’m hitting the ball more naturally.”
Scott had nine punts against the Bears and averaged 47.6 yards gross and 43.6 net with five landing inside the 20. Speedy returner Tarik Cohen, who ranked fifth in the NFL with a 12.5 average last year, was limited to four returns for 36 yards.
“He was on point all night long,” coach Matt LaFleur said. “We knew anytime you have returners like they have, and specifically like Tarik Cohen as the punt returner, it starts with our specialists. We knew that JK had to have a big game and he delivered.”
The amazing part of Scott’s performance was the way he combined hang time with direction. The aim generally is to hit each punt somewhere from the numbers on the field to the sideline.
Anything in the middle of the field is dangerous because it gives the returner two directions to take the punt. Any punt with hang time under 4.0 is also dangerous because the coverage team needs at least that to get down and cover the punt.
Here are the distances, hang times, landing spots, net yardage on his nine punts and which were Aussie-style pooches meant to go high and short:
First quarter, 13:15 – 53 yards, 4.9, on the numbers, 42.
First quarter, 8:04 – 42 yards, 4.23, middle of the field, 36.
First quarter, 3:20 – 47 yards, 4.95, outside the numbers, 47.
Second quarter, 5:37 – 63 yards, 4.02, middle of the field, 63.
Second quarter, 0:55 – 36 yards, 4.61, inside the numbers, 36, pooch.
Third quarter, 10:58 – 37 yards, 3.92, on the numbers, 37, pooch.
Third quarter, 6:43 – 50 yards, 4.35, on the sideline, 45, pooch.
Fourth quarter, 15:00 – 37 yards, 4.3, outside the numbers, 37 pooch.
Fourth quarter, 1:43 – 63 yards, 4.52, outside the numbers, 49.
If you take the punts Scott in which did not use the Aussie style to pin the Bears in their own territory, he averaged 53.6 yards gross, 4.5-second hang time and 47.4 net. That means any time the Packers were punting away from inside their own territory, they could expect a 50-yard flip in field position.
“He was great,” long snapper Hunter Bradley said. “I told him after the game it’s nice to finally be on the same sideline with him when he does stuff like that because there were multiple games at college when I was (at Mississippi) State and he was at ‘Bama where he singlehandedly beat us because he was doing that, and we just didn’t have an answer for it.
“He’s worked his butt off in the offseason and that’s what he’s capable of. It’s nice to finally see him back on track.”
The only poor punt Scott hit was the second one. It was from the end zone in the first quarter. It was short and down the middle but had just enough hang time to allow the coverage units to have a chance.
“The ball location (was good overall),” LaFleur said. “There was one punt where we were backed up where we served it up to him right in the middle of the field, but on that particular play our coverage unit was on point and we were able to smother him a little bit. I’m really happy for JK.”
Of all the punts Scott hit, his last was the best.
The Packers were trying to run out the clock and preserve their victory, but they were forced to punt from their own 27 with 1 minute, 45 seconds left. The defense had been on the field for 69 snaps (including penalties) and was hoping Scott could put the Bears in a hole to make things a little easier.
The Bears faked like they were playing for a block, lining nine players at the line of scrimmage. It forced the gunners to come inside and block. The Bears only rushed five, however, but their strategy had resulted in the Packers’ pursuit being bottled up in the middle of the field.
If Scott had hit a bad punt, Cohen would have had time to field the punt and potentially have a big return down either sideline.
Instead, Scott hit a bomb. Cohen had to back track for it and caught it over his shoulder right at the painted “10” on the Bears' end of the field. Cohen returned it 14 yards, but the Bears were called for holding and Chicago had to start on its own 14.
“Oh my gosh. It’s awesome,” Bradley said of that final punt. “He saw the front and saw that he really needed, with them having us caved out, he really needed to get a hold of it. So, he lowered his drop and he got a hold of it.
“That’s what he’s capable of. He’s definitely going to be in this league a long time punting like that.”
When it was brought to his attention that he might have been the Packers’ MVP Thursday night, Scott shrugged his shoulders and said that was not how he was thinking about the performance.
“I just try to do my job,” he said. “For me, it’s about doing your job and helping us win. It’s always a team effort. I’m thankful to be able to play a part in winning. That’s the big thing.”
Jim Owczarski of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this story