GREEN BAY — The game was tailor-made for special teams.
With the temperatures hovering well below freezing, Jake Schum, Jeff Janis and the rest of the Packers’ special-team units fully understood the part they had to play in the team’s NFC Wild Card playoff matchup with the New York Giants.
The conditions were going to stress every aspect of the third phase from kickoffs and punts to the coverage and return units, and for 60 minutes on Sunday, the Packers met the challenge.
Green Bay bested the Giants in nearly every phase of special teams, which went a long way in tilting the field position and time of possession heavily in the Packers’ favor.
The Packers, who held the ball for 34 minutes, 31 seconds, had an average starting field position of their 36 on 14 series. Twice, punt returner Micah Hyde pulled Green Bay within the Giants’ 40.
Comparatively, the Giants’ average starting field position was their 25. Only once on 13 series did they start a series outside of their own 40 and it came after a turnover on downs.
“I thought our coverage units just played with great discipline,” Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “I thought the ball placement for the most part was very good. … Once again, this is about fundamentals. There was no new scheme or (we) didn’t change things up, but I thought our energy was outstanding on special teams, and to win the field-position battle the way we did was a big part of our success.”
It started with the performance of Schum and Janis. A slow start resulted in the Packers having to punt on their first five possessions. A squib could’ve spelled disaster, but Schum responded with three punts inside the Giants’ 11-yard line in the first half.
As well as Schum struck the ball, it was up to Janis and the coverage team to neutralize Pro Bowl special-teamer Dwayne Harris. On back-to-back series in the second quarter, Janis did just that in tackling Harris the moment he caught the ball to force New York to start from its own 8-yard line.
As a gunner, Janis has seen his share of double-teams this year. He spent the week working on being more physical with his hands at the line of scrimmage in practice after a quiet performance against Detroit in Week 17.
It showed on Sunday. Harris, who has three punts returned for a touchdown in his career, finished with four yards on three returns.
“He’s been great all year,” said Schum of Janis. “He just flies down the field and that’s what they expect me to do is hang the ball high enough to be able to go down and make those plays. They depend on me. I depend on them. I felt like we’ve done a really awesome job this year in limiting returns.”
On the other side of the equation, Hyde and the Packers’ punt-return team had the task of squaring off with Giants’ punter Brad Wing, a two-time NFC special-teams player of the week in 2016.
Wing, who finished the regular season 10th among NFL punters in net average (40.9), has played a key role in New York winning the field-position battle all season long with his 93 punts making him the third most active punter in 2016.
The Packers have mixed-and-matched their punt-return unit throughout the season, but recently settled on Hyde after Randall Cobb sustained an ankle injury against Seattle last month.
Hyde countered Wing’s eight punts with five returns for 50 yards. The Packers’ offense scored 10 points off his two returns that infiltrated the Giants’ 40-yard line.
“We’ve been putting a lot of emphasis on our punt-return game,” Hyde said. “We haven’t had the season we’d like to have. We’ve been shuffling returns back there, we’ve been shuffling personnel back there, so it’s good to get guys out there who have been doing it the last couple weeks and putting in the time with the film study and it’s paying off.”
In addition to his contributions to punt coverage, Janis also returned three kickoffs for 77 yards, including a 33-yard return in the second quarter that gave Green Bay the ball at its own 44.
The Packers averaged 27.0 yards per kickoff return behind Janis’ three attempts and a 31-yard effort from reserve running back Christine Michael in the third quarter.
“Our chances always increase this time of the year, especially in the cold weather and especially out here at Lambeau Field,” Janis said. “It seems people kick the ball a little bit shorter and the weather seems to affect them a little bit. If we keep getting our blocks, those things are going to open.”
Meanwhile, the Giants had more difficulty gaining traction behind the trio of Harris, Odell Beckham Jr., and Bobby Rainey, who lost his balance fielding a Mason Crosby kickoff near the sideline and fell out of bounds at the New York 3-yard line.
The Giants’ offense preceded to go three-and-out, giving Green Bay the ball back at the New York 37 after Hyde’s 23-yard return. It set up a 32-yard Crosby field goal that gave Green Bay a two-score lead from which it wouldn’t look back.
The Packers’ special-teams unit knows the work isn’t over, though. As much as it contributed to Green Bay’s 38-13 win over the Giants, it’ll be critical to keep those performances coming.
“We talk about it all the time in our special teams meetings,” Janis said. “If we can help the offense as much as we can – pinning them down inside the 5 or whatever – any type of yardage really makes a difference in the game.”