Outside of fake punt blunder, Packers special teams were strong against Dolphins

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY – Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur called the silver lining to the failed fake punt against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday the fact that his team won the game the very first time he has called a special teams fake.

Other than that, he called it, “all bad.”

Part of that silver lining was that special teams otherwise played an enormous part in the Packers’ 26-20 victory at Hard Rock Stadium.

Take away the decision to get cute deep in their own territory and one poor kickoff and the Packers had a terrific day on special teams.

Besides the field position for which kick returner Keisean Nixon was responsible – a 93-yard return and later the ball on the 46-yard line after the Dolphins botched a squib kick intended to keep the ball away from him – the Packers made sure speedster Raheem Mostert wasn’t a factor on kickoff returns, holding him to an average of 19 yards on six returns.

In addition, kicker Mason Crosby hit field goals from 36, 46, 28 and 26 yards, outperforming his competition, Jason Sanders, who connected from 46 and 34 and missed from 48.

“I can't speak (enough) to just the effort we're getting on (special) teams,” LaFleur said. “I don't know if (people) can probably see it when you're watching the games. Rich (Bisaccia)'s done a hell of a job. Him, (assistant) Byron (Storer), (quality control assistant Michael) Spurlock of getting these guys to buy into that phase.

The Green Bay Packers' Keisean Nixon returned two kickoffs for 113 yards against Miami.

“And it's, it's become a real strength for us I believe.”

As far as surprising the public, the fake punt was on the money. LaFleur has been averse to that kind of risk-taking since taking over in 2019 and choosing to do it on fourth-and-2 from the 20-yard line trailing 17-10 caught everyone but the Dolphins by surprise.

At least, it seemed that way.

Miami kept its defense on the field, anticipating either a fake or that the Packers might bring their offense out, so when the two teams lined up, the Dolphins had their 300-pound defensive linemen across the front line instead of linebackers and safeties.

Punt protector Dallin Leavitt had no chance trying to run the ball up the middle and failed to get a yard.

“It was one of those (things), we wanted to steal a possession on special teams,” LaFleur said. “We thought that was going to be an important part of this game.”

The problem was that LaFleur and Bisaccia didn’t impress upon Leavitt to call off the fake if the Dolphins lined up with their defense on the field, so he went ahead with it. Miami lined up eight across the line of scrimmage, single-covering the gunners and making running the ball up the middle almost impossible.

“We have to give our guys the ability to get out of that,” LaFleur said. “We have to articulate and show when we want to call it off.”

Thanks to the defense, the Packers surrendered only a field goal after the change of possession and so the play did not put them in as big a hole as it could have.

Another area of concern was the kick return position after Nixon left the game with a groin pull. Rookie receiver Romeo Doubs replaced Nixon and, on his return immediately following the field goal, fielded the ball 5 yards deep in the end zone. He made it out to only the 13-yard line.

Nixon has been fearless returning kickoffs in the end zone, but he also ranks second in the NFL in return average and is a threat anytime he touches the ball. Doubs is not.

“He will not do that again,” LaFleur said.

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In the first meeting with the Minnesota Vikings, special teams did not play a significant role in the loss. Amari Rodgers did all the returning and had one punt return for 12 yards and one kickoff return for 14 yards. Five of the kickoffs were touchbacks.

In the outdoors, Nixon, if he is recovered from the groin pull, may have some opportunities to return kickoffs and so his presence might make a big difference. Overall, LaFleur likes the way the veterans the team has signed mostly to play special teams have blended with younger players like Innis Gaines, Patrick Taylor, Kingsley Enagbare and Tariq Carpenter.

“We're bringing a physical mentality,” LaFleur said. “And guys are getting excited. I think you could feel that when watching our coverage units, just getting down there and making big plays, making tackles inside the 20. Just playing with the physicality and a mentality and a style of play that reflects the type of energy that Rich brings each and every day.”

Safety Darnell Savage gets chance to regain his starting position

After safety Rudy Ford made some coverage errors that cost the Packers two big plays, passing game coordinator Jerry Gray benched Ford and replaced him with Darnell Savage.

The veteran had played just two snaps since being benched before the Philadelphia game and was injured while playing a dime corner position early in the Eagles game. Last week against the Los Angeles Rams, he played just one snap on defense and nine on special teams.

Against the Dolphins, he played 32 defensive snaps without any glaring errors.

“You’ve got to give Savage a ton of credit because some guys don't handle it the right way,” LaFleur said. “And he handled it like a pro. And that's what we expect. And we're just really proud of the way that he battled through that.

“Just being prepared, No. 1, and then going out there and showing the things that we were looking for. I thought he really did a nice job in the game.”

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