Packers' special teams have work to do
Maybe all the lingering issues are an anomaly and the Green Bay Packers' special teams will settle down once the games matter, and everything falls into place.
For the moment, however, there's questions about whether the offseason changes the Packers implemented to the league's worst special-teams unit have taken. If the Packers were looking for a boost of confidence regarding the third phase, they certainly didn't find it in Sunday's 39-26 loss to Philadelphia.
The problems started with Raheem Mostert's 67-yard return on Mason Crosby's opening kickoff after Casey Hayward lost containment on the left side. It was the first blow in the Eagles handily winning the field-position battle with average starting position of their 31-yard line compared to Green Bay starting at its own 15.
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The inconsistency of punter Tim Masthay and eight special-teams penalties weighed heavily into the differential. The Packers lost 52 yards of field position on special teams. Comparatively, they were penalized 13 times for 120 yards in 16 regular-season games a year ago, according to NFLPenalties.com.
Zook said Carl Cheffers and his crew called the game tight, as many officials do in the preseason. For example, he uses Jayrone Elliott lining up too far off the ball and drawing an illegal formation penalty. During the regular season, Zook adds they usually "warn you to get up to the line."
"Obviously you can't have (eight) penalties in any phase," Zook said. "But sometimes that's the way it's called, and we have to be smart. I guess probably the good thing is there were not a lot of foolish penalties. There were some aggressive penalties, which you're going to have occasionally, and that's part of the game."
One of the more peculiar breakdowns came in the second quarter when the Packers were flagged for having too many players on the field during Philadelphia's punt on fourth-and-16.
On the very next play, the Packers only had 10 players on the field. The same issue occurred again in the third quarter when a rusher was missing between Andy Mulumba and Adrian Hubbard, who almost blocked Donnie Jones' punt regardless.
"Once again, in preseason, that's why it's called preseason," Zook said. "These are mistakes, now if this was in the season and were still doing the same things … but the thing you have to do is be able to learn from these mistakes."
Masthay's situation is perplexing. Both he and his coaches believe he's striking the ball well in pregame warm-ups, but it hasn't translated into games. Masthay ranks last among qualifying punters in gross average (39.8) entering the last week of the preseason.
His saving grace has been the fact only five of his 15 punts have been returned for a combined minus-1 yard, which leads all punters in the preseason. His net average of 38.5 yards per punt is tied for 25th.
The Packers dedicated themselves to Masthay when they cut his competition, Cody Mandell, before their first preseason game. So far, they've taken the same patient approach they did when Crosby was struggling during the 2012 season, but Masthay will be the first to say improvement needs to be made.
"He's just got to punt every punt like he punts in warmups," Zook said. "He's out there booming them in warmups. Tim's his biggest enemy. He's trying too hard. Just relax and punt the ball. But I can see him getting back to where he needs to get to. I thought it last week and this week in practice and watching him today, I thought he was doing some good things."
The Packers made a multitude of changes after an abysmal 2014 season. Coordinator Shawn Slocum was fired less than a week after his unit's collapse in the Packers' 28-22 overtime loss to Seattle in the NFC title game and Zook was soon promoted in his place. Since relinquishing offensive play-calling duties, Packers coach Mike McCarthy has even taken up a seat in the special-teams room.
The organization moved on from several special-team stalwarts, including Jarrett Bush, Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore, to build around a younger nucleus of players. In March, they matched Oakland's one-year, $2.55 million guaranteed offer sheet for safety Sean Richardson, who led the unit in coverage tackles last season.
Whether it's personnel or performance, there's plenty for Zook's special teams to figure out and only Thursday's preseason finale against New Orleans left to find answers in the preseason.
In less than two weeks, there no longer will be any room for error.
"Special teams during the preseason is chaos because you're not managing a group of 13 for 11," general manger Ted Thompson said Wednesday. "You're managing a group of 28 for 11. That's no easy task, but we'd rather (penalties) not happen."
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