After struggling as a unit in 2009 when they were flagged a league-high 30 times, the Packers’ special teams not only cut down on penalties this season, but also contributed to the team winning the field-position battle throughout the stretch run, with the punt-coverage unit factoring into that in a major way.
Through the first seven games, Green Bay ranked No. 30 in the league with its opponents averaging 15.8 yards per punt return. Starting with the Packers’ 9-0 win at the N.Y. Jets, they limited their opponents to just a 7.6-yard average on punt returns in the final nine contests, good for No. 8 in the NFL over that span. Opponents have averaged 8.8 yards on punt returns against Green Bay in three postseason contests.
In last Sunday’s NFC Championship Game win at Chicago, Bears Pro Bowl returner Devin Hester recorded just a 5.3-yard average on three returns, well below his NFL-record average (min. 30 attempts) of 17.1 this season. It was the second strong effort against Hester over the past month, with the Packers limiting him to just two returns on eight punts in Green Bay’s Week 17 win. Bush downed back-to-back punts inside the 5-yard line in the fourth quarter in the regular-season finale.
At the end of the first quarter last Sunday at Soldier Field, Bush got down the field as a gunner to deflect Tim Masthay’s punt from near the goal line back to cornerback Brandon Underwood at the Chicago 3-yard line, one of five punts placed inside the 20 by Masthay on the afternoon. Bush also nearly downed another Masthay kick at the 1-yard line in the fourth quarter, but was unable to re-establish himself in the field of play after going into the end zone.
Bush added a tackle on kickoff coverage against the Bears when he brought down Danieal Manning for just a 15-yard return in the second quarter, his team-high fifth stop on special teams this postseason.
“Jarrett's been impactful as a cover man,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “He has been for a while, for a number of years for us. We’ve put him in positions, particularly inside our kickoff team, to be impactful.
“He's hard to block. Outside he's strong, and he's got enough length and size that it's hard for a corner to play him one-on-one. And he actually will beat a double-team at times. He's been very productive here lately with helping down the ball inside the 20 and inside the 10 in some cases.”
Bush finished tied for second this season with 12 stops, his fifth straight campaign posting a double-digit tackle total on special teams. Despite his consistency in that area, Bush was probably known by Green Bay fans more for a play he wasn’t able to make in the 2007 NFC Championship Game as well as frequently being whistled for penalties over the past two seasons.
In the 2007 title contest against the N.Y. Giants, Bush had an opportunity to post a critical takeaway with the game tied at 20 late in the fourth quarter. Cornerback R.W. McQuarters fumbled on a punt return at the Green Bay 38 and Bush was in prime position to recover, but instead of diving on the ball, he tried to pick it up and run with it. The ball was knocked out of Bush’s hands by Giants safety Mchael Johnson and New York receiver Domenik Hixon recovered the ball to maintain possession in a game the Giants would go on to win in overtime, 23-20, as they advanced to the Super Bowl.
Although Bush registered a combined 27 tackles on special teams from 2008-09, it was the eight penalties he was flagged for over that span that drew the ire of both coaches and fans. He always kept an upbeat attitude in spite of the criticism, but one of his teammates could see that it was taking a toll.
“I would be lying to say when people get hit hard with the fans like that they just kind of brush it off,” linebacker Desmond Bishop said. “We're human. So I could see in his face that he was affected by it a little bit. But shows the kind of character he has.
“He didn't let it affect him in a negative way. He really got hungry. And throughout the offseason, this offseason, in training camp, Jarrett, you could see the fire burning in his eyes, the hunger, and he worked hard. And he's always been a hard worker, and he’s come out this year and produced.”
The Packers as a team were whistled for 18 penalties on special teams this season, which ranked tied for No. 17 in the league after being the most-penalized team in 2009. Bush wasn’t flagged until an illegal-touching penalty at Atlanta in Week 12, one of only two penalties for him all season.
“He has learned to control that, play within the rules of the game,” Slocum said. “And I credit him because we did have that conversation. One of the things we needed to do was improve with the number of penalties that we've had on special teams, and he had gotten a bunch of them because, No. 1, he played a lot of plays and he had made a lot of plays.
“But he was highly combative, and sometimes he got a little over the line. To his credit, he's done well this year.”
For Bush, the increased awareness was a fine line between trying to maintain the aggressiveness he prides himself on while not getting preoccupied with concerns of being whistled for an infraction.
“(Slocum) just basically told me, just be more conscious of it, where your hands are, the stretch of the jersey because that's what the refs are looking for,” Bush said. “Like I said, it wasn't really just one conversation. It was just throughout the season, like always repetitive muscle memory, just always knowing where you're at on the field, like you can't go out of bounds on your own or it's a penalty.
“Just being more self-conscious about it while you're on the field and the conversation went well. It wasn't where he was -- we're yelling at each other. It's just stay on your P’s and Q’s, dot your I’s, cross your T’s, and just stay within the details. That's what he harps on, and we were able to get it done.”
The strides Bush had made were even more evident when he was voted as one of two playoff captains on special teams by his teammates. Like any player in the league, Bush would embrace an opportunity to be an every-down contributor, but he has also come to appreciate the impact he can have in his current role.
“Once I saw some other players, some other Pro Bowl players that I've watched growing up my first couple of years that you can actually make a difference,” Bush said. “Once I learned, OK, if I do such and such things like down the ball or control a returner that had a big impact in the game, that really if that returner had success and resulted in us losing the game. So if I shut down the returner, it helped the team as a whole to win the game.
“So once I grasped that concept of it, I just took it and ran with it, and that's what I'm trying to do now. Try to be a leader of the special teams and keep playing consistent as I have been and just keeping making plays and do what I can, do my part to help this football team win games.”
Additional coverage - Jan. 26