The Packers’ kicker and punter couldn’t have gone into the bye week on a better note.
Kicker Mason Crosby drilled four field goals, including a franchise-record 58-yarder, and hit four of seven kickoffs for touchbacks against the Vikings at the Metrodome. Punter Tim Masthay put all three of his punts inside the 10-yard line, dropping them at the 7, 5 and 2, and posted a sparkling net average of 55.3 yards.
“It would be hard to top that,” Slocum said.
Yes, it would, but Crosby and Masthay will continue to play huge roles for the Packers in the second half of the season if they just come close to sustaining that kind of production.
Crosby is having the best season of his five-year career. He is a perfect 14-of-14 on field goals and has taken advantage of the new kickoff line at the 35 to boom touchbacks on 24 of 46 kickoffs. The 24 touchbacks rank tied for second in the league.
Field-goal accuracy has been Crosby’s most notable improvement. He has never hit the 80-percent benchmark in a single season (79.5 percent as a rookie is his highest), but he’s not only been good every time this season, he’s been as down-the-middle as possible, which Slocum attributes to being technically and fundamentally in a groove.
He has a 56-yarder in addition to the 58-yarder this season, as the roll he’s on has encouraged the long attempts. Both came indoors.
“Probably the biggest factor in the success right now is the seamless operation of the snap, the hold and the kick,” Slocum said. “They’re very much in sync and there’s a lot of confidence. They’ve got a very methodical process during the week to prepare, and the same thing on gamedays. Right now, it’s doing well.”
So is Masthay, who has been fighting an uphill battle to raise his net-average ranking since New Orleans’ Darren Sproles ran a punt back 72 yards for a touchdown in the opener. Masthay also used the shorter but higher Aussie-style, end-over-end punt on all six kicks in Week 3 at Chicago to limit return man Devin Hester’s impact, and it worked, but his net average again suffered.
The No. 31 ranking in the category doesn’t reflect Masthay’s more recent efforts, though. His lone punt in Week 4 was a 49-yarder that was downed, he drew a fair catch from Eric Weems at the Falcons’ 16-yard line on a 43-yarder in Week 5, and he had his best game to date last week.
“I liked what he did (in Minnesota),” Slocum said. “That’s what I had envisioned him to be. It’s taken him a little bit to get there at this point in the season. Hopefully he’ll stay there as we move forward.”
The return and coverage units have had their ups and downs as well, bumps that Slocum would like to smooth out.
Return man Randall Cobb had an electrifying 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the opener, but then fumbled a kickoff the next week in Carolina. The rookie also muffed a punt last Sunday in Minnesota, then bounced back with an impressive 42-yard return later in the game to set up a score.
Slocum sees a high ceiling for Cobb, who he said didn’t get “bogged down mentally” by his early mistake against the Vikings. He’s made some questionable decisions bringing the ball out from deep in the end zone at times, but his 30.5-yard average on kickoff returns ranks fourth in the league. He ranks 22nd on punt returns with an 8.1 average.
“He’s a young guy,” Slocum said. “He’s got to learn to make wise decisions and be very efficient in ball security. I think he’s the type of player that’s going to continue to improve that, and I expect him to.”
The coverage units haven’t had any costly breakdowns since the opener when Sproles got loose for a 57-yard kickoff return in addition to his long punt return. Since then, Denver’s Quan Cosby recorded a 37-yard kickoff return and St. Louis’ Austin Pettis had a 39-yard punt return, but there’s been nothing else of consequence, though the Packers were saved by a penalty on Chicago’s trick punt return for a score in Week 3.
Rookie linebacker D.J. Smith leads the special teams units with six coverage tackles, with third-year linebacker Brad Jones right behind with five.
The combination of Crosby’s strong leg and solid coverage has resulted in the opponent not starting a drive beyond its own 27-yard line following a kickoff in five contests this season, including the last three.
“I’d like to erase all the hiccups and I’d feel great, but that’s not reality,” Slocum said. “Consistency in performance is probably the thing we need to work on the most. We need to stack consistent performance and do it week after week.” Additional bye week coverage