'All hands on deck' approach could boost Packers' erratic special teams

GREEN BAY - No one with the Green Bay Packers may be feeling more pressure heading into the playoffs than special teams coach Shawn Mennenga.

 A year after Mennenga was hailed for clearing up the mess he inherited from former special teams coach Ron Zook, his units have been taking on water the last nine weeks and are the team’s Achilles heel heading into the playoffs.

As fans of the Packers witnessed in 2014, special teams mistakes can cost you a trip to the Super Bowl and the test of how well coach Matt LaFleur’s team is equipped to make it to Tampa in February could rest with the performance of Mennenga’s units.

“I think the special teams, it either gets noticed when it's really good or really bad and unfortunately we've had a couple big plays that we've given up over the course of the season on special teams,” LaFleur said. “I think a lot of times when you get down to these types of games where you've got two evenly matched teams, a lot of times special teams is the answer.”

Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga has been taking some heat this season.

Of late, it has been the answer as to what unit has been the shakiest.

Over the course of the last nine games, the special teams units have:

  • Lost a fumbled punt return at Chicago.
  • Allowed a blocked field goal (called back by a phantom penalty) vs. Tennessee.
  • Allowed a 71-yard kickoff return at Detroit,
  • Allowed a 73-yard punt-return touchdown, a 46-yard kickoff return and had a missed extra point vs. Philadelphia.
  • Missed an extra point vs. Chicago,
  • Lost a fumbled kickoff at Indianapolis.
  • Allowed a 91-yard kickoff return vs. Jacksonville.

There have been other gaffes, such as a blocked punt, that have marred this season’s performance.

In addition, the return units have been awful. The punt-return unit has 21 total yards in the last nine games and opponents have had a longer kickoff than the Packers in eight straight.

The Packers are 3-5-1 in measuring average drive start after kickoffs over the last nine games. Not even the addition of veteran returner Tavon Austin (who coughed up the punt in the Bears game) has been able to help.

The positive side of the ledger is that Mennenga has cured the special teams of the penalty bug it had under Zook and so there has been a lot less lost yardage. Kicker Mason Crosby has been perfect on field goals and punter JK Scott has bounced back from a midseason slump.

All of it resulted in a No. 29 spot in longtime football writer Rick Gosselin’s annual special teams rankings for the Talk of Fame Network. The rankings, which came out Wednesday, are strictly statistical based, measuring 22 kicking-game categories.

Interestingly, New Orleans ranked No. 5. The Saints' special teams are run by Darren Rizzi, who was prepared to take the Packers job two years ago but felt the front office messed around with him in negotiations and decided to take himself out of the running.

The playoffs are a new season and Mennenga has a chance to prove he can turn things around. Asked by a reporter about the recent big plays allowed, he said he can’t dwell on the past.

“I don’t want anything bad to happen, but it’s just like if you write a bad story, you’re going to learn from it and move on,” he responded. “We correct it on film, we try to emphasize it, and it’s been a different thing every time.

“I can’t predict the future. We tried to correct it and we’ll see how the game goes on and hopefully good things happen for us.”

To help Mennenga, LaFleur has apparently given the go-ahead to use some starting players on special teams. Typically, it’s all backups, many of whom are rookies, undrafted free agents or players who just don’t have much experience.

LaFleur referred to it as “all hands on deck,” so there’s a possibility more veterans will be used.

“Me, I’m out there, whatever they need me to do,” said safety Adrian Amos, one of the team’s surest tacklers who serves only on punt coverage. “I’ve played all of it, played all over different special teams. It’s a new season once you get into the playoffs.

“(If it’s) what we have to do to win this game; whatever they ask of anyone, they should be ready to do.”

Tonyan reflects on record

After Robert Tonyan caught his ninth touchdown this season at Detroit last month, the record was first broached.

Tonyan was sitting in the back of the Packers' team bus with Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams as the team pulled away from Ford Field. To that point, Tonyan knew he was having a special season. He'd already surpassed his mild expectations of simply establishing a role for himself in the Packers' offense.

But there was something else Tonyan was now within range of obtaining. Since 1983, Paul Coffman's 11 touchdown catches had stood as the most by a Packers tight end in team history.

"After the Detroit game," Tonyan said, "me, Tae and Aaron were talking in the back of the bus about the record, just because it popped up on social media. Obviously, JO (tight ends coach Justin Outten) was all about it because the tight end room, he loves the numbers in the tight end room and stats about us."

It took a few week (and his 10th touchdown in Week 15 against the Carolina Panthers), but Tonyan tied Coffman's record in the Packers' finale at Chicago. His 3-yard touchdown catch from Rodgers pulled the Packers even at 7 against the Bears.

He had history, but Tonyan was momentarily unaware.

"When I caught it," Tonyan said, "I totally forgot about it. I was running off the field, and I was on field goal. I spiked (the football), and Aaron Jones gave me the ball. I'm running off the field, and I forgot I was on field goal, and they're telling me to get on field goal. I just hand the ball to Davante, and he's like, I need one more to break the record.

"And I'm like, 'Oh, I totally even forgot about that.' Like, once you go into game time –well, for me at least – once you go into game time, my mental is just so clear, and I'm just out there having such a good time, I'm really not even worrying about whatever is in the locker room, whatever is outside the field. Once I get on there, I kind of just black out everything else and just kind of enjoy just being out there and soak it all in and just be grateful to be a part of something great."

Even if Tonyan was unaware in the moment, he said tying the franchise record was special to him. It's the most tangible acknowledgment of his special season as being overlooked for the Pro Bowl despite 52 catches for 586 yards and the 11 touchdowns.

"It is an honor," Tonyan said. "I mean, when you see the G, all the Gs are out, you think of the history of the NFL, you think of basically where the NFL started, to be at the top of the list and sharing it with a great, it's really remarkable."

Clark excited to see Donald

Kenny Clark won't be on the field at the same time as Aaron Donald this week, but he isn't shying away from the matchup.

Clark, whose four-year, $70 million extension before this season made him the highest-paid nose guard in NFL history, said he's excited to see the Rams' six-time All-Pro and future Hall of Famer up close this week.

"I think anytime you've got a player like that on the other side of the ball," Clark said, "you always get excited. You get excited to have a chance to watch him play, and you get a chance to go out there and play your best game. Me and him are not playing against each other or anything like that, but definitely you get excited about being on the other side of the field and playing ball."

Clark, like everyone on the Packers, has heard all about Donald this week. He said the attention and praise given to one of the league's top players provided no extra motivation.

"You've got to give them their respect," Clark said. "I mean, he's a great player. He's a guy that they're going to key on, and everybody knows he's a great player. I don't get hyped or nothing because of that. It is what it is."