Packers working to improve woeful punt-return team

Ryan Wood
Packers News
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GREEN BAY - Early in the second quarter of the Green Bay Packers' opener at Chicago, Trevor Davis settled under a punt at the 25-yard line.

This was easily one of the forgotten plays in the Packers' season. Davis, since traded to the Oakland Raiders, was near his right sideline when the football arrived. No Bears were within 10 yards. Davis hesitated before turning upfield, pausing as if to decide where he should run, despite the patch of green grass that surrounded him.

He bounced one step right. He took two steps left. That hitch was all the Bears' coverage unit needed. Davis was consumed at the 26-yard line.

Nine weeks later, there would be nothing noteworthy about a 1-yard punt return in early September, except for one almost unfathomable fact: It remains the longest return the Packers have had this season.

Packers wide receiver Darrius Shepherd (10) and Lions defensive back Dee Virgin (30) dive for the ball after Shepherd fumbled a punt return an Oct. 14 game at Lambeau Field.

To be more specific, it’s the only Packers punt return that has gained even — or, in this case, exactly — a single yard. Of the 34 times opponents have punted to the Packers in nine games, only six have been returned. That’s the fewest in the NFL. What’s more remarkable: Those six punt returns have yielded minus-8 yards total.

That’s also the fewest in the NFL. By almost 50 yards.

“We haven’t had a whole lot of explosive plays from our special teams,” coach Matt LaFleur said.

That’s basically true across the board. For as good as punter JK Scott and kicker Mason Crosby have been this season, almost every other element of the Packers' special teams has been average to downright woeful. The Packers' kickoff return team ranks 29th in the NFL with 18.8 yards per return, so explosive plays haven’t exactly been prevalent in that phase, either.

The Packers' punt return team has been especially poor. Already in Week 10, the Packers could become the first team in NFL history to finish a season with negative yardage on punt returns. There’s a long way to go before that happens — they’re only one mildly decent return from exiting the red — but the unit still is on pace to be historically inept.

In the past 37 years, only the 2015 then-San Diego Chargers (84) have finished with fewer than 100 punt-return yards in a season. Given how unproductive the Packers have been returning punts, it’s quite possible they’ll become the second.

“I think certainly everybody can do a better job,” LaFleur said. “I think we can scheme up things a little bit better. I think our guys got to go out and make sure they’re giving our returners an opportunity. And then when the opportunities do present themselves, we’ve got to be aggressive with them.”

General manager Brian Gutekunst’s trade of Davis in Week 3 probably didn’t help.

While at the time the value of a sixth-round pick seemed like sufficient return for a former fifth-round pick with a significant injury history, Davis was by far their most experienced and natural return specialist. He ranked third in the NFL in punt return average in 2017 (12 yards), his healthiest season.

A career 11.3-yard-per-punt returner, Davis has averaged 11.9 yards on seven punt returns with the Raiders. Which is to say every time he’s had a punt return, Davis has averaged 20 more yards than the Packers have on their entire season.

Without Davis, the Packers turned to undrafted rookie receiver Darrius Shepherd. The difference in speed was dramatic. The Packers clocked Davis at a 4.3-second 40 before the 2016 draft. Their internal time on Shepherd is unknown, but his 4.57-second 40 at North Dakota State’s pro day is in another class.

Shepherd handled punt-return duties for six games. He only returned two, the second a muffed punt that lost 9 yards — and the football — against the Detroit Lions. The Packers released Shepherd last week, and Tremon Smith assumed his punt returner role.

While having Davis would probably help, special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga said the biggest culprit has been scheme. There’s a reason the Packers only have six returns this season. It’s not that they’ve failed to field a lot of returnable punts, or turned them into fair catches. After reviewing all 34 punts to the Packers, only five of the 28 that weren’t returned had a chance to be. Two came immediately after Shepherd’s muffed punt, when he might have been instructed to fair catch.

Otherwise, the Packers’ blocking simply has not given their punt returner a chance to gain yards. It’s no coincidence there is one statistic in the punt-return game that the Packers lead the NFL: Their 18 fair catches are most in the league.

“I've been conservative,” Mennenga said. “It starts with me. I've been probably more conservative just trying not to have fakes run on us and things like that. If you get into certain down and distances, we may have something called ... it's third-and-long and all of a sudden they get some yardage and I'm like, 'OK, I'm not gonna maybe go double the gunners like a lot of people would and I've kept people in.”

Mennenga tells his gunners that if they’re blocked one-on-one, they should win 90% of the time, if not every time. Conversely, single blocking a gunner does not create much opportunity for a return.

Opponents have generally punted well against the Packers. On 27 punts from plus territory, opponents have averaged 45.4 yards. Unofficially, their average hang time is 4.3 seconds.

Most telling, the Packers double blocked both gunners only twice.

“You don’t want to be so aggressive,” Mennenga said, “all of a sudden you get a fake run on you and they keep a drive going in a close game. You’re like, ‘Why’d you do that? You didn’t need to do that.’ For me, it starts with me being a rookie coordinator. Those opportunities, as it gets colder, I think they’ll present themselves.”

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