Packers' special teams striving to play with 'penalty-free aggression'

Jim Owczarski
Packers News
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GREEN BAY - There have been a variety of mantras espoused at 1265 Lombardi Ave. since new Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur and his largely new coaching staff began to set the roots of their philosophies and programs. Digging at the details. Everybody does their 1/11th. Yeet.

In Shawn Mennenga’s special teams room, it’s similarly simple: penalty-free aggression.

The first-year coordinator’s groups are admittedly conservative and therefore relatively unspectacular, but they have become efficient at eliminating mistakes and playing complementary football with a defense and offense that needs the best field position possible.

Green Bay’s special teams have been flagged 11 times, tying them for fifth-best in the league with San Francisco and New England. Three teams are tied for the league lead with nine.

“It’s a testament to the coaches and the players both, putting in the time in the technique and drill work they do give us in the week,” cornerback Tony Brown said. “Understanding your opponent and their strengths and how to use that to block them in a way that doesn’t surprise you so that you don’t get a hold.”

As such, the Packers have largely avoided major penalties when they are flagged. Four of the calls have come before the snap and they’ve been caught for just one 15-yard infraction.

Those 11 penalties have cost the Packers just 75 yards of field position, which is second-fewest in the league behind Minnesota’s 71.

Green Bay Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga talks to his unit during the first quarter of their game Thursday, September 26, 2019 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. The Philadelphia Eagles beat the Green Bay Packers 34-27.

“You can see that and the value that we add to the team in terms of field position and getting drives started,” linebacker Oren Burks said. “That stuff really adds up.”

It has been quite the turnaround as the Packers were the second-most penalized special teams unit last year with 26, which resulted in 220 yards of lost field position.

In the five years from 2014-18, the Packers averaged 20.8 penalties per season with an average of 180.4 yards of lost field position.

While the Packers’ average starting field position of their 28.5-yard line is 15th in the NFL, the team finished 25th in that category in 2018 and 28th in 2017. And the Packers are 11th in opponent starting field position (their own 27.7-yard line), which is an improvement over 31st in 2018 and 30th in 2017.

The messaging begins with the overall team meeting where the first key to special teams is always playing with “penalty-free aggression.”

“So it’s always on the mind,” rookie linebacker Ty Summers said. “Of course there’s drills that we do, but I think for the most part it’s having that idea locked in and remembering what it is we need to do and how we’re supposed to accomplish it. It’s a mindset.”

From there, time is taken to review the league-provided videos of penalties and officiating points of emphasis. The rule book is emphasized. Anywhere from five to 10 minutes of a 45-minute meeting will be used just on drilling home what can and can’t be done.

Then on the practice field, technique is king.

Individual one-on-one drills are performed at various speeds and with a variety of blocks that can be used in whatever position they may be in. There are also constant reminders to not chase and incur a block in the back, but look to block someone else.

The combination of the teaching method inside and drills in practice have connected with the special teams core, a group of 14 who have played at least 27% of the special teams snaps to date. The average experience level of the players that have reached that threshold is just 2.57 years of experience.

“We’re just very informed on what we are and are not supposed to do,” rookie tight end Jace Sternberger said. “They do a very good job educating. Now with how strict the rules are and all the new changes you gotta really be messing up to get a flag, so a lot of it comes from discipline. I think that’s cool being a younger team like we are, especially on the special teams unit, it’s easier to buy in.”

That youth plus the overall health of the roster gave Mennenga’s group a wide margin to improve, which they have done nearly weekly.

Opponents had at least one kick return of 25 yards (including two of 60-plus yards) in eight of the first 11 games. But when Chicago Bears kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson had a 26-yard kick return Sunday, it was the first return of 25 yards or more in four games.

The punt-coverage units have been solid as well. Bears punt returner Tarik Cohen had a 14-yard return, which was the first return of 10 or more yards since Oct. 27 in Kansas City.

The Packers elected to take a delay of game on a punt against the Bears, which was their first penalty on special teams since Za’Darius Smith was called for a hold on a punt return Nov. 10 against Carolina.

Of the 11 penalties the Packers have had accepted against them on special teams, nine were called in the first nine weeks of the season. The group’s worst game was in the loss at the Los Angeles Chargers, where they were flagged three times and had a punt partially blocked.

With just two games left in the regular season there have been precious few explosive returns, no touchdowns, no blocks or momentum-changing fakes as of yet on special teams. But on the other hand, the coverage and return unit’s quiet efficiency has, at the very least, turned an obvious weakness into a strength that played no small role in the Packers’ five-win turnaround from a year ago.

“I think special teams is more of a mentality,” Burks said. “It’s just a want-to. And we’ve got guys that really want to.

“We’re continuing to get better. It’s something you have to take pride in.”

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