GREEN BAY — Ron Zook felt his special-teams unit getting close to breaking a big return that would drastically change a game.
On Sunday, that moment finally arrived at the Georgia Dome courtesy of rookie receiver Trevor Davis and the other 10 players on the Packers’ punt-return team.
Davis, a fifth-round pick out of California, broke free for a 55-yard return with 5 minutes, 46 seconds left in the first half to set up his own 9-yard touchdown catch three plays later.
It was the Packers’ longest punt return since Micah Hyde’s 55-yarder for a touchdown against Detroit in Week 17 of 2014.
“When I caught the ball, there was a lot of space and a lot of things for me to work with,” Davis said. “It got me onto the punter. That’s all they say they want me to do – they’re going to get me to the punter and from there it’s my obligation to get into the end zone. I couldn’t get in the end zone on that one, but that was just great blocking by our team.”
There were three central components to the 55-yard return, beginning with cornerback LaDarius Gunter cutting off Atlanta gunner Robenson Therezie down the middle of the field.
Linebacker Joe Thomas managed to pin fullback and personal protector Patrick DiMarco to the sideline to give Davis an open lane up the right side of the field.
While Davis redirects any credit for the big play, the rookie’s breakaway speed was evident when he scooted past initial defenders C.J. Goodwin and Josh Harris to bring the ball back to the Atlanta 15.
It was the type of big-play production the Packers have been looking for from their punt-return unit, whose longest return was 16 yards a year ago.
“That was a really good play by him and that gave our whole sideline a lot of energy,” receiver Jeff Janis said. “Anytime you see a guy make a play like that, it can really give your team energy and it carries over to offense and defense. Anytime a guy makes a play like that, it’s cool to see.”
Davis recorded his first three professional catches against the Falcons, but none more important than his 9-yard touchdown reception with 4:22 left in the second quarter to give Green Bay 21-13 lead at the time.
The rookie made a big adjustment on the extended play and came back to the ball, which led to quarterback Aaron Rodgers firing a dart to Davis near the pylon.
“I just worked the drill that I was supposed to work and it worked out perfectly,” Davis said. “I knew right where he was going to throw the ball and he did. He put it right on the money.”
Davis was a prodigious kickoff returner at Cal. His 24.7 yards per return rank fifth in school history, including a pair for touchdowns against Washington State during the 2014 season.
Still, he only touched the ball on punt returns 14 times in two seasons with his longest going for 24 yards. He’s already surpassed that mark twice on his first six NFL returns.
Davis’ effort on Sunday catapulted the Packers to third in the NFL with 13.9 yards per punt return on seven attempts. Now, Zook says it’s up to the special-teams unit to build on that success and create more opportunities in the second half of the season.
“There’s natural returners and Trevor is working towards that,” Zook said. “I think he has a chance to be a pretty good returner, but the other guys have to do their job also. It takes everybody doing their job.”