Kickoff returner Jordy Nelson and punt returner Tramon Williams are both off to solid starts in 2010, especially considering their status as the lead men on their units wasn’t finalized until Week 1 following an injury settlement with Will Blackmon.
Nelson has been the true standout of the two, with an impressive 31.0-yard average that ranks first in the NFC and second in the NFL through two weeks. He trails only New England’s Brandon Tate, whose 34.1-yard average on nine returns includes a 97-yarder for a touchdown in the Patriots’ opener.
Nelson doesn’t seem far from breaking one of his own, however. He posted returns of 51 and 40 yards in Week 1 at Philadelphia and then began the Week 2 contest vs. Buffalo with a 34-yard return that was an ankle tackle away from being a big one.
“The biggest thing he’s doing a good job of is catching the ball, getting north and south, and then trying to hit the crease that’s available,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “We’ve gotten him on the safety several times in these first two ballgames, and that opens the door to returning it all the way. That’s where we have to take it to the next level.”
Some changes made to the return scheme during the offseason and training camp are a good fit for Nelson thus far. Slocum explained that the blockers are being trained to “square up” on their blocks, or take the opponents straight on rather than trying to get leverage to one side or the other. That gives Nelson the space to get up to full speed and then decide which way off that block he wants to cut.
Nelson also is showing a little more fearlessness at the point of attack, and that combined with the improved blocking has allowed him to reach at least the 34-yard line on his last five returns.
“A lot of times there’s a triangle of defenders you face as a returner, with a point guy and two sides,” Slocum said. “The sides are the guys who are running after you with leverage, or pursuit angles. If you slow down as a returner, those pursuit angles are correct and those guys will catch you. But if you run with speed north and south, you can make those pursuit angles wrong.
“That’s an area of growth. That’s part of a returner maturing, and I think Jordy is starting to do that.”
It was also good to see Nelson and the return unit adjust when the Bills tried to pin him along the sideline. After Buffalo’s lone touchdown, Bills kicker Rian Lindell angled a shorter kick to Nelson’s left, and he caught it at the 13-yard line near the boundary.
But he used his open-field speed to beat most of the pursuit across to the other side of the field, a rarity on kickoff returns, and he still got the ball out to the 40 with a 27-yard effort.
Nelson’s consistency thus far has allowed the Packers to rank tied for second in the league with an average starting spot following a kickoff of the 35.3-yard line. That’s tied with New England and behind only Pittsburgh (37.8), both of whom have run one back for a TD this season.
“Jordy has deceptive speed, and once he winds his speed up, he’s pretty fast,” Slocum said. “That’s his asset.”
Williams is no slouch in the speed department, either, though he hasn’t had as many opportunities to show it. Williams has been forced to fair-catch five of nine return attempts on punts from Philadelphia’s Sav Rocca and Buffalo’s Brian Moorman, two of the best in the business.
But he has averaged a respectable 8.0 yards on his four returns, good for fifth in the NFC and 14th in the league. His long is just 10, and in a nod to his consistency, 10 other punt returners have had one longer than 10 yards but rank lower than Williams for average return.
Two of Williams’ returns against the Bills could have been better, though. He mistakenly let Moorman’s first punt drop when he had a chance to run up and catch it, and he ended up retreating to field it after a couple of bounces and ran it back 9 yards.
Then in the third quarter, he fielded a punt near the Buffalo sideline but got only 7 yards when Slocum said one of his own blockers got in the way.
“That took the return away, and we have to get out of his way as well, let him go north and south,” Slocum said. “I think he’s doing a solid job, and Tramon is explosive. It’s just a matter of time before he gets one going.”
Helping both return units has been an absence of penalties after a flag-filled season in 2009 that featured a league-high 14 holding calls and four illegal-block infractions on returns.
It’s only two games, but with none so far in 2010 it appears the emphasis on fundamentals and techniques during the offseason and training camp – which included referees officiating the special teams blocking drills as well as the full-speed returns – is paying off.
“Again, it goes back to being square on blocks and (getting) hands inside,” Slocum said. “If you do those things, number one it’s the best technique to use that covers opponents up, and it gives the returner an option to run left or right off that blocker. If you’re on the side, hands outside the frame, referees are going to see that and make calls.”
How the units build on their productive starts will be interesting to follow.
Williams averaged 10.4 yards per punt return last year in limited opportunities, and he has posted a 45-yard-plus return in two of the previous three years, so he has the ability to bring his average up in a hurry. Blackmon’s 11.1-yard average in 2008 was the Packers’ highest by their primary punt returner since Desmond Howard’s 15.3-yard average in the 1996 Super Bowl season, so something solidly in double digits could go a long way toward helping the team.
Meanwhile, Nelson may have a hard time maintaining a 30-plus-yard average over the long haul, but it will be fun to watch him try. The Packers have never had a kickoff returner with at least 20 attempts average 30 yards over an entire season. The highest was Herb Adderley’s 29.85-yard average in 1963 (597 yards on 20 returns).
“I think there’s a lot of room for improvement for him and with the guys blocking in front of him,” Slocum said. “What we have to do is give him time to get his speed going.”