Amari Rodgers' fumble, Christian Watson's injury leave Green Bay Packers with questions in return game
The Green Bay Packers addressed a lot of issues on special teams this offseason. After hiring coordinator Rich Bisaccia, the Packers upgraded at punter and added core special-teamers. The unit progressed on field goal operations, coverage teams and setting up blocking for returns.
With all the new faces, though, Bisaccia and the Packers staff elected to stay with Amari Rodgers as the kickoff and punt returner, even though the Clemson alum struggled last season as a rookie.
During the offseason, the Packers and Rodgers spoke of his improved frame, faster step and better grasp of both the offense and Bisaccia’s special teams philosophy. The latter happened after Bisaccia stayed on Rodgers about when to return vs. when to fair catch, and how to find the edge on returns.
Thus far this season, Rodgers has been more apt to return a punt, but that option has proved dangerous. On Sunday, in a 27-22 loss to the New York Giants, Rodgers fumbled on a punt return, his second on a punt return in the first five games. He’s found luck in both instances, having yet to lose one of them after knocking the lost ball out of bounds against the Chicago Bears. But the persistent issues feel like a race against time before one becomes extremely costly.
Against the Giants, Rodgers started his return from the Green Bay 37-yard line, carrying the ball 11 yards before he was hit by New York's Julian Love. The ball popped out, into Josiah Deguara’s hands, but Deguara coughed up the ball up as well when hit. Isaiah McDuffie eventually fell on the ball to maintain Packers possession. The Giants wouldn’t have to punt again until taking an intentional safety late in the game.
Now the question arises, will Rodgers be back to receive the next time the Packers field a punt? The possibility is there, considering the player he was replaced with on kickoff returns Sunday, rookie Christian Watson, left the game with a hamstring injury.
“I was excited, obviously to be back there and had the opportunity to be involved in the kicking game a little bit,” Watson said Sunday in London. “So it's exciting for sure. You know, obviously I think with more opportunities and more, you know, comfortability back there, I'll be able to more make my mark on that team.”
The speedy Watson was tapped to return two kickoffs against the Giants, doing so for 35 yards (average 17.5 yards per return with a long of 18). Watson left the game in the second half after tweaking a nagging hamstring issue, leaving Rodgers to take the final kickoff. But the kickoff-return job now seems to be Watson’s to lose.
Watson returned kickoffs in college at North Dakota State, averaging 26.38 yards per return. He ranked ninth in Bison history with 686 kickoff-return yards and tied the school record with two returned for touchdowns, both during his junior year. He has been working as a kick returner in practice all season to this point, but has not practiced returning punts in either college or the NFL. If Bisaccia and the coaches ask Watson to work as a punt returner, though, he said he is ready to do so.
“I don't really think it would (be a big transition),” Watson said. “Obviously, it's not really up to me, and I'm gonna work at whatever I need to work on and, obviously, if the coaches believe that’s something I can contribute on.”
For now, he looks to lock himself into the kickoff-return position, utilizing his speed and big stride. It will require being healthy, coming back from a hamstring that has kept him out of one game and removed him Sunday against the Giants.
“It’s really frustrating because it’s so up and down,” Watson said. “I felt great this week as well but to deal with it again is definitely frustrating. But I’m going to continue to do what I can do and move forward.”
Watson went on to say he feels like the hamstring issue is something he can come back from quickly.
For the sake of Green Bay's return game, his availability and impact could be a game changer. As it stands, Rodgers appears to have fumbled his shot in at least the kick-return game.