The kicker is having a career year. The punter just set two team records. The return man is the best the franchise has enjoyed in about a decade.
The Packers’ special teams are in position to make a major impact in the upcoming postseason.
That wasn’t necessarily the case a year ago, when injuries up and down the roster affected special teams probably more than any other area of the team. Back then, punter Tim Masthay was still a bit of an unknown and returner Randall Cobb was still in college.
Heading into last year’s playoffs, special teams were more about survival, and the results were up and down. The kickoff-coverage unit allowed a touchdown return in Atlanta, but the following week Masthay effectively neutralized Chicago’s Devin Hester in the punt-return game. There was give-and-take.
This year, the key to Coordinator Shawn Slocum’s units has been consistency, both in terms of personnel and quality of play, which go hand in hand. A greater emphasis on fundamentals has cut penalties in half, from 18 last year to nine this season. All of that has bred confidence on practically every unit.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy has said he feels this year’s special teams are as strong as he’s had in his tenure, and that’s high praise considering the 2007 group produced four touchdowns (two punt returns, two fumble recoveries) and had three of their “big four” units (punt return, punt coverage and kickoff coverage) ranked in the top quarter of the league.
“We’ve had less change, and I think that helps,” Slocum said. “We’ve got a good group of guys.”
Ironically, it’s a group of guys emboldened by what they went through injury-wise a year ago, never knowing week to week who was going to line up alongside them.
“Having a lot of injuries last year, a lot of guys got a lot of playing time on special teams,” said tight end Tom Crabtree, a special-teams regular. “Because of that, we feel like we have a lot of depth and guys who can do a little bit of everything and play different positions. It comes down to experience and it’s definitely helped.”
The coverage units recovered quickly from their early hiccups, another sign of their experience. New Orleans’ Darren Sproles ran the first punt of the season back 72 yards for a touchdown, the biggest reason the Packers ended this past season ranked 28th in punt coverage.
Since that first punt, opponents have averaged just 10.1 yards per return, which would rank 18th in the league.
Sproles’ 57-yard kickoff return in the opener was the longest allowed by that unit all season, too.
“We had the problem there with the long punt return and a long kickoff return in the first ballgame, and I think against St. Louis (in Week 6) we let a couple plays out for a little extra yardage,” Slocum said. “Primarily the second half of the season we’ve been pretty solid with it.”
Five players finished the regular season in double digits in coverage tackles. Cornerbacks Jarrett Bush and Pat Lee led the way with 12 apiece, linebackers Brad Jones and D.J. Smith added 11 each, and tight end Ryan Taylor chipped in 10.
Two of those players, Smith and Taylor, are rookie late-round picks, and undrafted rookie safety M.D. Jennings added nine tackles. So personnel upgrades helped, too.
The biggest roster addition, of course, was Cobb, a second-round pick who gave the Packers their first punt-return TD since 2008 and first kick-return TD since 2000. Cobb elevated the Packers’ return games from 26th (kickoff) and 22nd (punt) a year ago to 12th in both categories this season.
Cobb did have three fumbles on returns during the regular season, but none since Week 10. He’s hearing a lot about how Desmond Howard’s big-play returns helped propel the Packers to the Super Bowl title 15 years ago, but he’s not going to get caught up in trying to do too much in his first NFL postseason.
“I’m not going to change who I’ve been,” said Cobb, who is expected back for Sunday’s game with the Giants following a late-season groin injury. “I’m going to continue to try to be the player I’ve been, stay disciplined and stick to what we’re trying to accomplish as a team.”
The special-teams’ steadiness all starts with the kicker and punter having their best seasons.
Mason Crosby has made 85.7 percent of his field goals (24 of 28), a career high by nearly six percentage points. His 56- and 58-yard kicks in a span of three weeks early this season not only were franchise bests but significant contributors to wins over the Falcons and Vikings.
Meanwhile, Masthay’s team records for gross average (45.6) and net average (38.6, highest since the stat’s been kept beginning in 1976) came after a slow start and a realization by Masthay of how valuable the right mental approach is to his success.
“I’ve learned to control my thoughts and my heart rate, and those two things are critical to me in games,” said Masthay, whose regular-season net average was 39.7 after his first effort, the one Sproles ran back.
“If I want to punt the ball to the sidelines, I don’t want to be thinking about trying to hit it out of bounds. I want to be thinking about short footwork, setting my hips, getting my angle right. The focus needs to be more process, less outcome. That’s where controlling thoughts comes in.
“The heart rate is deep breaths, having a confident vision, knowing you can do this well and expect to do it well.”
Right now, that’s how the Packers feel about their special teams as a whole.
“We definitely have the guys and coaching to get us there,” Crabtree said. “It’s just a matter of executing and things falling into place for us.”
Playoff captains: McCarthy announced on Thursday that the team's playoff captains are as follows: QB Aaron Rodgers and WR Donald Driver on offense, CB Charles Woodson and LB A.J. Hawk on defense, and K Mason Crosby and CB Jarrett Bush on special teams. Additional coverage - Jan. 12