Eagles third-year wide receiver DeSean Jackson led the NFL in 2009 with a 15.2-yard punt return average, and was one of only two players in the league in ‘09 (then-Cowboys WR Patrick Crayton) to post two punt return touchdowns, which tied a Philadelphia franchise record.
The 5-foot-10, 175-pound Jackson became the first player in NFL history to earn Pro Bowl recognition at two positions as he was selected as a returner and a wide receiver (62 catches for 1,156 yards and nine TDs). His average of 52.8 yards per score was the highest in NFL history among players with 10 or more touchdowns, and that total included scores of 85 and 72 yards on punt returns.
“He’s dynamic, there’s no question about that,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “You can start with the 7:30 special teams meeting just watching him on the punt return. He’s a special player.
“He’s very special when he gets the ball in his hands. It’s important for us to play to our leverage and play to techniques that fit the scheme, and do not get outside of that. He’s definitely someone that we have to be aware of at all times.”
The Packers finished tied for No. 24 in the league last season by allowing opponents a 10.1-yard average on punt returns. During the first eight games, the Packers ranked No. 30 in the league as opponents posted a 13.4-yard punt return average, which included a pair of costly returns by Bengals WR Quan Cosby in Week 2.
The first one, a 60-yard Cosby return all the way down to the Green Bay 6, set up a 1-yard touchdown run from Carson Palmer three plays later to even the game at 14. Then, with the Packers trailing by a touchdown with under three minutes remaining, Cosby came through with a 32-yard return to set up a Shayne Graham field goal to put the Bengals up 10 in a game they hung on to win, 31-24.
But Green Bay’s punt-coverage unit made noticeable improvements in the second half of the year when the Packers won seven of their final eight games. During that stretch, Green Bay allowed opponents a punt return average of just 6.1 yards, cutting the number down by more than half from the first eight games. The Packers allowed just one return of 20-plus yards, a 20-yarder by Seahawks RB Justin Forsett in Week 16, after giving up four returns of 20-plus yards the first half of the season.
“To be able to score or change the field position and the momentum with a play on special teams, it is big,” linebacker Desmond Bishop said. “The defense can force turnovers and the offense scores points, but that third element of special teams can come up with plays, and it is the difference between winning and losing. It’s the difference between being a good team and a great team.”
With an explosive offense that produced the third-most yards in franchise history and a defense that ranked No. 2 overall and first against the run, getting more production from special teams was a focus heading into 2010. One of the most notable changes has been a new punter, with first-year man Tim Masthay replacing Jeremy Kapinos, who finished tied for last in the league with a 34.1-yard net average.
Masthay posted a 44.8-yard average with a net average of 34.0 yards on his eight punts during the preseason, but his net number was skewed by one return in the preseason finale at Kansas City. Masthay boomed a 51-yarder with good hang time on his first kick of the night, but Chiefs rookie cornerback Javier Arenas was able to bounce a return outside for 44 yards down the left sideline. Take out the one long return on a good kick, and Masthay’s net average is 37.9 yards on his other seven punts.
“The coaches talked a lot about wanting to try to eliminate returns as much as possible and eliminate big returns too,” Masthay said. “That is kind of our main objective. We are always striving for a good net, because that in the end is what really matters. It doesn’t matter if I average 50 yards a punt if he returns it 20 yards every single time.
“Jackson is lightning fast and a smart returner. We have our work cut out for us and I have my work cut out for me. We’ll just do the best we can to slow him down.”
Obviously the Packers are hoping that their offense will be moving the chains and putting up points on Sunday afternoon, which would minimize the number of times they have to punt. But if they do, limiting Jackson’s opportunities then becomes the biggest priority.
“Keep the ball out of his hands,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “Kick it high enough and make him fair catch it. That’s how you do it. I don’t know if you stop him. You had better be pretty good in terms of creating a cage around him and not letting him out of it.
“I don’t think the rules change. I think the consequences change based on your actions. You had better be very sound in your coverage. Just like covering (Bears wide receiver) Devin Hester, if you give him an inch, he’ll take a mile. You give him a crack, he is going to score, and I think DeSean is the same way.”
Jackson has proven just how impactful he can be in a short period of time, posting three punt returns for scores in only two seasons, which already sets an Eagles franchise record for career punt return touchdowns. Jackson entered the NFL with impressive credentials as a returner, having led the nation with an 18.2-yard punt return average as a sophomore in 2006 at California. He set a school and Pac-10 record with four punt return touchdowns that season, including a 95-yard score against Arizona and an 80-yarder against Arizona State. As a true freshman in ’05, Jackson scored a 49-yard TD on his first and only return of the year.
Bishop, who led the team with a career-high 22 special teams tackles last season, got an up-close look at what Jackson is capable of as his teammate for two seasons at Cal. Bishop sat out Thursday’s practice with a hamstring injury, but is hoping to be part of a coverage unit facing one of the biggest tests they will likely see all season.
“His return ability is kind of the same as his receiving ability,” Bishop said. “I think he has all of the tools to be successful. Of course he has the speed and explosion, but he also has great vision. I think a lot of being a good punt returner is being fearless. I see on tape that he has that same capability.
“I know from playing with him, that if the ball is catchable, he is going to try to return it. Even if it is a bad situation, he is going to make the best out of nothing. It is definitely going to be a challenge.” Additional coverage – Sept. 9