Special teams are supposedly one-third of the game, but the cliché underestimated their impact in Thursday’s season-opener.
The Packers were both the beneficiary and victim of big plays in the return game to start their 2011 season, giving Special Teams Coordinator Shawn Slocum a valuable film vault it otherwise might take a month to compile.
“I think it was a heavyweight fight with a lot of punches thrown back and forth,” Slocum said of the positives and negatives for his units. “I think there was some great stuff on tape for us to feel good about, as well as an opportunity for us to grow. It had to be a great game to watch.”
The great stuff was mostly courtesy of Randall Cobb, who mistakenly brought a kickoff out from 8 yards deep in the end zone, but took it the distance. Both Slocum and Head Coach Mike McCarthy credited Cobb for being “decisive,” even if it was the wrong decision to come out of the end zone with the ball; it made him one-for-three on his grades for decision, assignment and technique.
“Minus decision, probably minus assignment, too,” McCarthy said, before cracking a smile. “It was a hell of a technique, as far as running the ball.”
Slocum joked that there’s now a new line of demarcation for bringing a kickoff out of the end zone. “Nine yards,” he said, with only a slightly straight face. Slocum also wanted to make sure the kickoff-return unit as a whole got some credit, particularly fullback John Kuhn, who helped Cobb keep his balance when he was hit low and spun around.
“Great heads-up play,” Slocum said. “We work that drill now.”
It wasn’t all laughs in the film room on Friday. The Packers allowed three significant returns by Saints dynamo Darren Sproles: punt returns of 72 and 20 yards, and a kickoff return of 57 yards.
On the first punt-return, which Sproles took for a score, punter Tim Masthay’s solid boot was too much down the middle of the field and not angled properly toward the left sideline. On the second one, Masthay was trying to hit a low line drive out of bounds but again didn’t angle it enough and Sproles took advantage.
“That puts too much pressure on the punt team,” Masthay said of his incorrect placements. “His quickness is something different, something special.”
Fortunately, cornerback Sam Shields successfully chased Sproles down when he got loose for the long kickoff return, which came from 3 yards deep in the end zone and crossed midfield. Slocum said the coverage unit was without regular Nick Collins on that return because Collins left the game briefly with a wrist injury. Shields, one of the fastest special-teamers on the squad, came from the other side of the field to shove Sproles out of bounds.
“That’s something we can’t have,” McCarthy said of surrendering the long returns to Sproles. “He had a big night. He was a big factor in getting them back in that game.”
The special teams nearly made amends on their final snap of the night, as Masthay pooch-punted from the New Orleans 37-yard line with 1:16 left. Jarrett Bush was in perfect position to potentially down the punt at the 1-yard line but slipped as he caught the ball, and his feet hit the goal line, resulting in a touchback.
“We do need to give ourselves a margin for error on that,” Slocum said. “It was pretty tight.”
It was, yet, another instructive piece of film to analyze in a game filled with teachable moments, good and bad.
“The sting of being unproductive last night is lessened greatly by winning as a team,” Masthay said, speaking about the punt unit specifically. “In the end, we won the game. We obviously have to produce better, but we’re 1-0.” Additional coverage - Sept. 9