Was Green Bay Packers special teams slip in loss to the New York Jets a pattern or an anomaly?

Kassidy Hill
Packers News
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GREEN BAY – For a moment, everything felt eerily similar, in the worst possible way.  The Green Bay Packers were pinned in their own territory with a defense that was holding on to the rope as tightly as possible but starting to slip and an offense that was frantically grasping for any sort of progress.

Then, the special teams slipped. A blocked punt, returned 20 yards for a touchdown to the same corner of the end zone where the San Francisco 49ers high-stepped over the Packers' Super Bowl dreams eight months and three weeks ago. 

It was an implosion that put the New York Jets up by two scores and closed the valve on any energy the Packers were holding on to in a 27-10 loss to the New York Jets. The Packers special teams were responsible for a 10-point swing as the club dropped to 3-3.

“We just had bad eyes, maybe a miscommunication,” Dallin Leavitt said. “Honestly, I can't tell you (what happened) yet. We'll have to look at the tape. They gave us a look that messed with our eyes and we got to have better eyes.” 

It was midway through the third quarter and the Packers defense, which played lights out in the first half, had just given up a four-play, 74-yard touchdown drive. The offense got the ball back on its 30-yard line after a solid return from the Packers' new kick returner Keisean Nixon. 

Then a sack on quarterback Aaron Rodgers, one of four on the day, stalled the drive, forcing Pat O’Donnell to punt deep in his own territory.  Isaiah McDuffie and Dallin Leavitt, the punt protector, both went left. McDuffie stayed on the man to this left and didn't come back to the gap, where Jets lineman Micheal Clemons slipped in easily. Leavitt attempted to jump back in time to make the grab, but it was too late. O’Donnell never had a chance to get the ball off. After it came off Clemons hand, Jets safety Will Parks scooped up the loose ball, returning it for 20 yards. 

“They gave us a look that, I don’t know, I don’t wanna say we weren’t ready for it because we were," Leavitt said, "but a situation where we’ve gotta be better as a group.” 

Leavitt was brought to Green Bay, along with coordinator Rich Bisaccia from the Las Vegas Raiders, to lead this special teams unit. He’s become the de facto captain, playing on all four special teams. He had recovered a blocked punt off the Jets earlier in the game to give the Packers offense a chance at easy points (which they squandered). A mistake is foreign to him, and until the Packers review the tape, it won't be clear if the issue was due to Leavitt, McDuffie or someone else missing an assignment. 

Unfortunately for Leavitt, there was one play he knows for sure was his fault. After the Packers offense found the end zone for the first time in nearly five quarters, cutting it to a one-score game, New York's Braxton Berrios returned the kickoff 29 yards to its 34-yard line. 

“That was me that put our defense in a bad position,” Leavitt said. “I gotta go outside. I get pinned inside and they hit my lane and that's on me. I can't do that.” 

Mason Crosby misses his first field goal of the season 

The woes were not just on punts and returns, though. On its final drive of the first quarter, which spilled into the second, Green Bay started on its 27-yard line, following a punt return by Amari Rodgers that went for no gain. Stalling outside the Jets red zone, the Packers settled for a 47-yard field goal attempt from Mason Crosby.

As rain poured onto Lambeau Field, Crosby sent the ball off his foot and into the hand of linebacker Quincy Williams. Coach Matt LaFleur said after the game he thought the operation was off, leading to a low-kick. 

“There was a high snap which slowed down the operation, and there was leakage on the right side,” LaFleur said. “I talked to Rich (Bisaccia) about it and we’re not quite sure what transpired on the punt. I’ll have a better answer for you (Monday).”

The New York Jets block a field goal attempt by Green Bay Packers kicker Mason Crosby.

But Crosby thought the kick was good, until the moment Williams made sure it wasn’t. 

“I thought, honestly, whenever it came off, I felt good about it. I was surprised whenever I heard the second hit,” Crosby said of the pop off Williams’ hand. “Those are the ones we just look at and, you know, I critically evaluate myself first and foremost, and have to make sure that I hit the best ball and the right ball for that situation.” 

Crosby had been 7 for 7 until that point. After a 2021 season in which his long snapper and holder combo cloaked the entire field goal unit in uncertainty, the addition of a young Jack Coco at snapper and O’Donnell at holder, the operation was smooth through five games. It continued to be for the rest of Sunday as well, with Crosby booting a 29-yard field goal at the end of the first half. 

“We've been really good and so those are things that happen, I think,” Crosby said. “Our goal for professional kickers is to be 100% but that's sometimes a pipe dream and you just reload and you go to the next one. You know, we had great execution there when we needed to at the end of the half."

There were some reasons for optimism

On the positive side against the Jets, Bisaccia’s group also gifted the Packers at least three, if not seven points, that the offense squandered. They also possibly found a new kick returner in Nixon. As the offense and defense search for an identity, the special teams has arguably found theirs.

Linebacker Eric Wilson, signed a week and a half ago and playing only his second game with the Packers, blocked a punt that Leavitt recovered after out-muscling several Jets around the ball. 

“It was a good play by Eric,” Leavitt said. “I think JG (Jonathan Garvin) picked the center and Eric came clean and made a play and it’s a really good play, really impressive play.” 

On kickoff returns, Bisaccia went back to the man who first flashed for him with the Raiders. Nixon let most go for  touchbacks, but when the Packers needed a spark, he decided to return one out of the end zone. He took it all the way to the 30-yard line, and was one block away from breaking it off for a score. 

"He came from the backside, tripped me up," Nixon said. "I thought I was gone. No way the kicker was tackling me.

"You gotta have high confidence cause you get in trouble if it don’t go right. Bet on yourself, every time … you just gotta hit it. You’re not gonna run every one back, just got to understand that. Gonna get tackled, gonna get hit hard. But it’s just a comfort thing, comfortable doing it.”

The Nixon return was for naught, though as that drive ended with the blocked punt returned for a touchdown. And the Packers' blocked punt, which they recovered, turned into a negative drive punctuated by an Aaron Rodgers sack.

The Packers special teams had largely addressed their glaring issues, until Sunday. Through five games, they had shored up protection, catered personnel to scheme and tweaked operations to stop the bleeding of the past couple of years, until Sunday. They had not done anything to win a game, but had not done anything to lose a game either, until Sunday. 

Now they head into Week 7 preparation with the ghost of special teams past peeking around the corner. 

"The part that's hard about special teams is that it's really man for man for man across the board. And so you got to look at yourself and see what you can do,” Leavitt said. “Everybody has to do their part, but you have to first look in the mirror and see what you can do better.”

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