“I would like to win the hidden-yardage battle,” he said. “We didn’t do that.”
But that’s not to say the special teams were completely unproductive or didn’t show the potential to improve upon the units’ sub-par performances from last year.
Going against a Cleveland team that was No. 1 in the annual Dallas Morning News special teams rankings for 2009, the Packers found both success to build on and struggles to learn from as they move through the rest of the preseason.
The kickoff coverage unit, for one, got off to a great start. Kicker Mason Crosby booted the opening kickoff 8 yards deep in the end zone for a touchback. His second kickoff went 7 yards deep, and the Browns tried to run it out but only reached the 18.
From there, the Packers began substituting liberally on kickoff coverage, and the results were decidedly more uneven. The Browns’ next two kickoff returns were brought out to the 37 and the 35, and their last one came out to the 41, though it was called back on a holding penalty.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy estimated that 30 different players were used at one point or another on kickoff coverage in the game, so some inconsistencies could be expected. But the liberal substituting is necessary at this stage to give the coaches film to evaluate on several individuals, to find the very best performers for the top units.
“By design, we played a bunch of guys,” Slocum said. “We played the entire special teams roster. As we move forward, we will start playing the units together, the first punt team and first kickoff team. While we’re doing that, I want those first units to be dead-on.”
The punt team had similar ups and downs, beginning with the punters themselves. Chris Bryan and Tim Masthay both posted impressive, and identical, 47.3-yard gross averages on three punts apiece. The highlights were Bryan hitting a high 43-yarder that was fair caught for a net of 43, his best net on the night. Meanwhile, Masthay booted a 42-yarder that was downed at the Cleveland 5, another net high that had the added benefit of pinning the Browns deep.
But both punters lost their edge in the fourth quarter, getting off poor kicks. Bryan’s low 42-yarder luckily wasn’t returned, but Masthay’s low 44-yarder was, for 15 yards, resulting in a net of just 29 and, along with a 5-yard penalty tacked on, setting up the game-winning field goal.
Overall, McCarthy feels both punters are doing a good job and the competition won’t be ending anytime soon. Slocum expects the decision at the end of training camp to be a difficult one, though he called that a good problem to have.
“I thought we would see some separation after the first ballgame, because we had Family Night that we treated like a ballgame,” Slocum said. “But we’ll go into this game (in Seattle on Saturday) and we’re going to continue to rotate them. Part of that process is to keep both of them active throughout the entire game so they get that feel of what it’s like in the fourth quarter. What I want to see out of those guys is better production in the fourth quarter, if we’re punting.”
The punt coverage team allowed only two returns, the 15-yarder late in the game and an 18-yarder earlier. But that was on a long, 57-yard boot by Bryan, so the net was still a respectable 39. For comparison’s sake, the Packers’ net punting average over the past two seasons has been 34.9 (35.7 in 2008, 34.1 in 2009), a number that must improve.
Punt coverage was responsible for all three special teams penalties in the game. One was an obscure call for 12 men in the formation, which Slocum said resulted from so many players shuffling in and out between the offense and the punt team, a mass of bodies that doesn’t exist in the regular season. The other two were for an ineligible man downfield when veteran Korey Hall and newcomer Maurice Simpkins both left the line of scrimmage early.
Those penalties are frustrating, to be sure, but they’re mental errors that are much easier to correct than the penalty problem that plagued the Packers’ special teams last year – holding and illegal blocks. Not one of those was called on seven returns (three punt, four kickoff), so it appears the added emphasis on fundamentals and having referees officiate the special teams blocking drills and call them tight at the outset of camp has paid early dividends.
“That part, I think that’s positive,” Slocum said. “(We’re heading) in a positive direction with the effort and work we’ve put into it.”
The returns themselves were lackluster, however. The longest of four kickoff returns was just 22 yards, by rookie Quinn Porter, and the longest of three punt returns was only 4 yards, also by Porter.
The biggest negative was when rookie Sam Shields muffed an attempted fair catch in traffic near the end of the first half, with Cleveland recovering the fumble. Shields’ other punt return went for just 1 yard when he hesitated and didn’t get upfield right away.
The return game could get a boost as soon as this Saturday in Seattle if Will Blackmon is able to play. Out resting his surgically repaired knee for over a week, Blackmon returned to the practice field on Tuesday and is still considered the team’s top punt and kickoff return man.
But considering Blackmon’s health history, a viable alternative needs to be found by the end of training camp. Running back Brandon Jackson, receiver Jordy Nelson and cornerback Tramon Williams all are taking reps as returners, but the open-field speed of guys like Shields and Porter remains intriguing if their fundamentals get shored up.
“We’re going to keep working with these young guys,” Slocum said. “We threw them out there, put their feet in the fire the first ballgame, and we had some problems. I think they’ve learned from that.”
They appeared to Tuesday morning, as the daily ball-security drill was altered to re-create the muff-in-traffic scenario that befell Shields in the game. All the punt returners had to catch punts shot out of the JUGS machine with two or three coverage men right in their face, and all the punts were fielded without a miscue.
Slocum has said several times since last season that with the Packers’ offense and defense so highly rated, his special teams don’t necessarily need to be game-changing. But they do need to be complementary, helping to win the field-position battle and avoiding the detrimental mistakes that will make things harder on the other units.
The goal is to get to that point by the end of the preseason, getting a look at as many players as possible now to be able to play the best ones later.
“I think the results are a by-product of the work you put into it, and we have a great body of work to this point,” Slocum said. “The No. 1 thing we have to do is play smart, play tough and be disciplined. If we can see those things and be productive, then I’ll be pleased.”
Aug. 17 - Additional coverage