Crosby's strong kickoffs come at good time

Weston Hodkiewicz
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If Mason Crosby notches one more touchback Thursday against the Minnesota Vikings, the Packers' eighth-year kicker will match his entire total from last season.

The only problem is he may need to kick the ball to Lombardi Avenue or Skyline Park to make sure Cordarrelle Patterson doesn't get to it.

Mason Crosby kicks off against the Jets.

Crosby's hot start on kickoffs will be tested against the Vikings' second-year returner, who gave the Packers plenty of trouble during his rookie season.

However, Crosby isn't doing too bad himself with 12 touchbacks on 20 kickoffs through the first four games this season.

That's only one shy of his entire total in 2013 when he had 13 touchbacks on 57 attempts after regaining the kickoff job from punter Tim Masthay.

Crosby's best season came in 2011 after the NFL moved up kickoffs to the 35-yard line in 2011. He had 49 on 108 attempts that season (45.4 percent). It dipped to 35 of 88 (39.8) percent during a woeful 2012 campaign when Crosby made only 63.6 percent of his field-goal attempts.

Opponents are averaging only 18.4 yards on the eight kickoffs that have been returned this season, which is fifth-best in the NFL right now and the lowest average in Crosby's career.

"He's striking the ball awesome," Masthay said. "Kickoff and field goals, and all of his kickoffs, he's been hitting solid in both directions. He's been doing that for a long time."

It comes with good timing, too. Patterson led the NFL last season with a 32.4-yards per return average with two touchdowns on 43 attempts. Ten of his returns went for more than 40 yards.

One of those touchdowns came against the Packers last October when Patterson returned a Masthay kickoff 109 yards to start the game. The Packers switched back to Crosby on kickoffs after the return.

Patterson is off to another fast start. His 30.8 yards per return this season is third-highest in the NFL among players with at least five attempts this season. Eight of his nine returns have been for more than 20 yards.

"He's a threat to score every time he touches the ball," Packers special-teams coach Shawn Slocum said. "You have to do a great job in coverage against him. At the same time, you can't give them the ball and great field position on every kickoff. It's time to step up and play. He's a great player."

The Packers didn't give up a score to Patterson in their second meeting last N ovember, but he still averaged 31.5 yards on his four returns. Rain is in the forecast for Thursday's camp, but Crosby's direction kicking and ability to pin Patterson back will be important regardless.

"He can kick it up in the stands, as far as I'm concerned," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "He's kicking the ball very well. That's something this time of year you have to take advantage of, because we all know when you get to November and December, it's a different game. The return game is so important in winter football, and if we have some weather (Thursday) night, it could definitely be a big factor."

-- and follow him on Twitter @WesHod

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