Packers Special Teams Coordinator Shawn Slocum has a two-point strategy for improving his units’ rankings in 2011.
“More impactful in the return game and more consistent in our kick coverage,” Slocum said.
Slocum’s teams took two big hits in 2010: a team-wide rash of injuries that turned the bottom half of the Packers roster into somewhat of a revolving door, and a punt return for a touchdown by the Bears’ Devin Hester that fans blamed for having cost the Packers the NFC North title.
Last year’s rankings are something Slocum would like to forget. Winning the Super Bowl helped ease fan and media criticism, but what Packers special teams need most is a player that can do for the Packers what Hester does for the Bears and Percy Harvin does for the Vikings and what the Lions drafted Titus Young to do.
The NFC North is loaded with kick-return stars and the Packers hope they added one to their roster when they selected Kentucky’s Randall Cobb in the second round of this year’s draft.
“He’s a good catcher of the ball. He gets off the spot well. I haven’t seen him get hit hard. He’s a strong runner. Some of the attributes I saw (in Cobb) I saw in Josh Cribbs,” Slocum said of Cobb.
As for kick-coverage, fewer injuries and a couple of draft picks with potential for being top gunners offer hope against the likes of Hester, Harvin and Young.
The Packers hope to re-sign kicker Mason Crosby, an unrestricted free agent whose arrow is pointing up following a season in which he was 11th in the league in scoring among kickers; Crosby was .786 in field goal percentage.
“He needs to take a step in his future as far as walk-off field goals. He rarely misses two (field goal attempts) in a row,” Slocum said of Crosby. “I’d like him to be above 90 percent, but we have a difficult place to kick. The winds are strange. Playing in Chicago is a challenge.”
One of the big issues for Crosby and all kickers is going to be touchbacks, since the NFL has moved the kickoff spot ahead 5 yards. Crosby was 27th in the league in touchbacks (four) in 2010.
“I think it’s going to change the game,” Slocum said of the new kickoff rule. “Given 5 yards, you shouldn’t worry about hang time.”
On the average, kickoffs fell at about the 1-yard line leaguewide last season. Five yards forward should result in an explosion of touchbacks. Those kickers that can’t consistently reach the end zone with their kickoffs could put their teams at a disadvantage.
Punter Tim Masthay was 14th in the league in gross average last season. His net average suffered from coverage failures.
What do all good special teams have in common?
“They have impactful returners that change field position. Their punter and punt-returner make plays,” Slocum said.
Do the Packers have players that can flip the field?
“Do we? We’ll see,” Slocum said.
In 2010, Packers special teams “did what we had to do to help this team win,” Slocum added.
This season, with Cobb expected to lead the way, the bar has been raised for Packers special teams.