Packers need to tackle punt coverage problem, and it starts with JK Scott
GREEN BAY - Now that the Green Bay Packers officially rank last in the NFL in punt-return coverage, it’s probably time to admit there is a problem.
Coach Matt LaFleur didn’t promise any drastic changes Monday, so it’s hard to know how different things will be Sunday when the Packers travel to Detroit, but one thing they will work on this week is teaching punter JK Scott to tackle.
The Packers have allowed punt-return touchdowns in two games, the latest Jalen Reagor’s 73-yarder that brought Philadelphia within a touchdown in the fourth quarter Sunday. Both times Scott had a chance to bring down the returner before he reached the end zone and both times he got juked out of his socks.
His punt was part of the reason Reagor broke a long return, but he might have minimized the damage if he could have at least pushed the rookie out of bounds or forced him back toward his teammates. If Reagor gets tackled, the defense has a chance to limit the Eagles to a field goal.
“I think it's more or less just the mindset when you get in that situation,” LaFleur said. “What we'll tell him is, 'Hey, take your shot, man.' Make him cut it back, whatever. And hopefully the pursuit is there. But it does us no good when we're backpedaling, and the guy is giving us moves, and those guys are typically going to be a little bit more athletic than most punters.
“So, you've got to close the space and just take a shot at the guy, and if you miss him, great. Or, if you get him down, great. If you miss him, then we need the pursuit to be there.”
LaFleur said that Scott’s punt was down the middle of the field, which is the worst place to hit it unless you’re hanging it up high and short. Scott’s 52-yard punt had a hang time of 4.55 seconds, but its direction allowed Reagor room to run to either side.
He muffed the punt but recovered quickly and was off to the races.
“We can't put the ball right down the middle of the pipe,” LaFleur said. “And then our gunner should've been on the left side of the returner. He ended up on the right side.”
In addition to Reagor’s return, the Packers allowed Jacksonville’s Keelan Cole to take one back 91 yards for a score in Week 10. The two returns have accounted for 164 of the 271 yards the Packers have allowed on 14 attempts.
Opponents are averaging 19.4 yards per return, which is 3½ yards more than the second-worst team allows. It is also 14.5 yards more than the Packers’ punt-return unit averages.
Coordinator Shawn Mennenga’s group ranks 32nd in punt coverage, 19th in kickoff coverage, 28th in punt-return average, 31st in kickoff-return average, tied for 19th in punting average, 28th in net punting average, 23rd in extra-point percentage and tied for first in field-goal percentage.
“It's always a concern when you're giving up big plays like that,” LaFleur said. “I think it's just like any other phase. You need every player doing their responsibility and if you don't get that done, bad things typically happen.
“It's just one of those deals where it's going to take all 11 and it starts on that punt.”
The Packers’ decision to claim defensive tackle Anthony Rush on waivers last week appears to be well-timed.
Veteran Billy Winn suffered a triceps injury that could knock him out for the season. Winn was injured in the second half Sunday and was immediately declared out. He was set to undergo an MRI, but LaFleur said it didn’t look good.
“I haven’t gotten confirmation on that, but yeah, definitely, very much a concern,” he said.
Rush was inactive against the Eagles after three days of practice but should be ready if needed this week.
LaFleur was less pessimistic about Equanimeous St. Brown (concussion) and receiver Tyler Ervin (ankle), but it sounded like it would be a stretch for them to be ready in time for Detroit.
“I've got a lot of concern on both those guys, whether or not they're going to be available,” he said.
Regardless of Ervin’s status, newly acquired Tavon Austin will be available to play offense and handle returns, LaFleur said. Austin was inactive Sunday, but LaFleur said he could have helped if needed.
LaFleur was not asked about tight end Jace Sternberger (concussion), but he will have to clear the concussion protocol before he can even practice, so it’s possible he’ll be out this week.
MVS ‘epitome of team’
Already up 14-3, the Packers wanted to send a statement to start the second half. Matt LaFleur called a shot play for Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who got open behind the Eagles’ secondary.
In recent weeks, the Packers have connected on those deep shots to Valdes-Scantling. He entered Sunday with three straight games of at least a 45-yard catch. As Valdes-Scantling ran open past Eagles cornerback Avonte Maddox, it appeared another big play was imminent.
Instead, Valdes-Scantling tried to cradle the football, and Aaron Rodgers’ pass bounced off his chest.
The Packers know that’s how it’ll go sometimes with Valdes-Scantling. He can be feast or famine, and dropping 50-yard receptions are part of his game. Regardless, the team has thrown its support behind him all season, and Valdes-Scantling showed why he has endeared himself with the Packers on the game’s clinching play.
While left tackle David Bakhtiari sprinted downfield to help spring Aaron Jones’ 77-yard touchdown run, he had company. At one point in the play, Valdes-Scantling found himself behind Jones near the left sideline. He turned on the jets, running past Jones to help usher him into the end zone with a block of Eagles safety Michael Jacquet.
LaFleur said Valdes-Scantling is “a prime example” of the team-first buy in he wants on his team.
“Here’s a guy,” LaFleur said, “I know we targeted him a couple times or whatever, and we were trying to draw some stuff up for him to get downfield, but he had no catches. But what did you see on that (77)-yard run? You saw a guy that was battling his butt off making key blocks down the field. And that is the epitome of team, and that’s what I want us to be all about.”
Packers OL keeps excelling
The Packers are so deep on the offensive line, they’re confident in multiple options to reconfigure while center Corey Linsley is on injured reserve with his knee injury.
Given a full week to prepare, the Packers shifted every position on their front five except Bakhtiari. Elgton Jenkins handled all the snaps Sunday. Billy Turner, who can play four positions, slid inside to right guard. He was replaced at right tackle by Rick Wagner. Lucas Patrick flipped from right guard to left guard.
It was a different look than what the Packers used the previous two weeks, when they slid Jenkins from left guard to center and used rookie Jon Runyan Jr. at left guard to replace Linsley. Those adjustments came in the middle of a game, however.
“We have a lot of confidence in whatever route we were going to go, whether it was with Runyan or with Rick,” LaFleur said. “That’s a credit just to the depth that we have in the offensive line room. It’s a credit to Adam Stanavich and his ability to get those guys to go out there and compete at a high level each and every game. So we didn’t feel like there was necessarily a bad decision we could make there, but we’re always going to go with whoever we feel gives us the best chance to win.”
LaFleur said one reason Turner slid inside to guard was he liked the matchup with Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, whom he blocked against when the two teams met last season.
The end result was familiarly solid protection. Aaron Rodgers was sacked twice, though one was at the line of scrimmage for zero yards lost.
“I thought I had at least a yard gain there,” Rodgers said. “Kicking myself, because I should’ve just thrown the damn ball away. … So it was really a one-sack game, and just a stupid play by me there to not be able to get a yard.”