Having allowed a long punt return of 10 yards in the first two games against Philadelphia and Buffalo, the Packers saw Bears wide receiver Devin Hester post two returns that resulted in both of Chicago’s touchdowns. The first, a 28-yarder to Green Bay’s 44 on a 35-yard kick from Tim Masthay, set the Bears up for a 9-yard touchdown pass from Jay Cutler to tight end Greg Olsen just four plays later with just over 30 seconds remaining in the first half to cut the Packers’ lead to 10-7 at the break.
Then, on the second play of the fourth quarter with the score still 10-7, Hester found a seam after fielding a 57-yard kick from Masthay and took it down the right sideline for a 62-yard touchdown. Add in a blocked field goal by Bears defensive end Julius Peppers on a 37-yard Mason Crosby attempt in the third quarter and three penalties on special teams, and it made for a forgettable night from the unit.
“I expect us to be solid overall, but I think it is important for me as the leader of the group to be consistent in my approach, No. 1, and my expectation level,” special teams coordinator Shawn Sloucm said. “What happened in Chicago is nowhere near what we need to do to help this football team win. We have put a lot of work into this, a lot of work into improving our special-teams play, and that is what we intend to do as the season goes on.
“I just think Monday, we had too many self-inflicted wounds and it bit us. They have a very impactful player as a returner that hurt us due to a poor position on the coverage, and then Julius Peppers is an excellent field-goal blocker and he has proven that over a number of years. We didn’t take him out of the ballgame.”
While the 28-yard return by Hester was a direct result of the low, line-drive kick from Masthay, Slocum said even though the punt that he returned for a score had plenty of distance, it provided too much room between the returner and the coverage on a kick with only about 4.6 seconds of hang time.
“When Devin Hester has got the ball in his hands with greater than 15 yards to go, he has got a chance to pick where he wants to run,” Slocum said. “There is a give-and-take on hang time vs. distance. An ideal punt at let’s say 45 yards with about a 4.5 hang time, most of those are going to be fair caught. But when you start hitting it out at 56 or close to 60 yards at that same hang time, there is just the spacing for a talented returner to get started.
“That is what you really fight to stay away from. It was a good punt in regard to the rotation of the football and flight and that, but more hang time would have helped us there, or right on the sidelines or out of bounds."
The Packers had a less-than-ideal week of preparation heading into the Chicago game with several core players missing practice time, including tight end Tom Crabtree, fullback Korey Hall, safety Derrick Martin and linebacker Brady Poppinga, which forced some shuffling during the week. Even with the overall health of the team improving this week, Head Coach Mike McCarthy on Thursday alluded to the possibility of more personnel changes on special teams on Sunday against Detroit.
“There is going to be some movement within the players on special teams,” Slocum said. “We had quite a bit last week. We try as much as we can to predict who is going to be up on Wednesday before we even practice so we can prepare those guys to play on Sunday, but that doesn’t always hold true.
“Our challenge, and the challenge in the NFL, is to play consistently on a week-to-week basis. Particularly in special teams, there are a lot of moving parts, especially with personnel. You have injuries that affect who is up and down offensively and defensively. You have game plans that affect that as well. What we have to do when we move a new person in, that person needs to step in and play at a high level.”
Part of the consistency the Packers were looking for was being held back by penalties, a major issue in 2009 when Green Bay led the league. It was an area of emphasis in the unit’s drill work throughout the offseason and training camp after being flagged 18 times for either holding or illegal blocks last season. That work has paid off thus far, with the first penalty in that category coming Monday night when Martin was flagged for a block in the back to wipe out a 22-yard punt return by cornerback Tramon Williams out to the Chicago 40.
Following the frustrating loss on Monday night, the Packers had to quickly shift their attention to an improved Detroit team looking for its first win of the season. The stronger Lions roster has trickled down to their special teams, as they rank No. 6 in the NFL in both opponent punt return average (4.7) and kickoff return average (19.7) after finishing 18th and 20th in those respective categories in '09. Add in Stefan Logan (24.5 avg. on kickoff returns), a waiver-wire pickup from the Steelers before the start of the season who Slocum said has “brought some juice” to the return game, and it becomes clear that Green Bay’s special teams need to put Chicago in the rear-view mirror.
“It is one of the great things about the NFL is we get to play another game, and it happens real quickly when you play on Monday night,” Slocum said. “You had better not sit in the corner and lick your wounds very long or you are going to let this thing eat you up. We have to move forward at a rapid pace and rely on our work from the spring and the summer and what we have done in training camp to this point. We should be fine if we do that.”
Additional coverage – Sept. 30