GREEN BAY – It would have been a breakthrough moment early in the game.
Packers return man Trevor Davis took the kickoff after Tampa Bay’s opening score, found a seam up the right sideline, and was off to the races for 70 yards, deep into Buccaneers’ territory.
The longest return of the season for Green Bay was called back due to a holding penalty, though, and the rub of it was rookie Vince Biegel’s infraction didn’t really have anything to do with the play.
Nonetheless, it was another piece of evidence that the Packers’ return game appears on the verge of breaking one, if it can get the one opportunity when it all clicks just right.
“I’ve felt like that all year, since the beginning of the year,” Davis said. “But it’s the National Football League, so it’s not the easiest thing to do. We have a really good average for not scoring. That’s what’s crazy.
“I’m competitive about it. I want to beat every team.”
Davis, the second-year receiver out of Cal, is currently ranked fifth in the league on kickoff returns (23.9-yard average) and 14th
on punt returns (9.1). But his long for each is in the low 30s, while all but one other returner ahead of him in either category has had at least one return of 40 or more.
Penalties have been a season-long issue for the return units, and they’ve been working to get things cleaned up. After the early flag against Tampa Bay last Sunday, no more penalties were called against Green Bay on special teams, allowing them to put together what Head Coach Mike McCarthy called their best game of the season.
Turned out the Packers just had to wait until the second quarter for the high-impact play, when second-year linebacker Kyler Fackrell broke through and deflected a Buccaneers punt.
The offense took advantage of the good field position, at the Tampa Bay 45, and drove for its first touchdown of the day. Technically, Fackrell’s play didn’t go into the stat book as a block, because the ball still reached the line of scrimmage, but special-teams coordinator Ron Zook said “it’s a block in my book.”
The Packers also felt they’d been getting close to blocking a punt, and it finally happened.
It was the type of play the Packers have needed from their special teams since quarterback Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone. Altering field position so significantly can help compensate for a Rodgers-less offense, and the Packers could use more of it Sunday in Cleveland, plus even if/when Rodgers comes back.
“There was definitely a change in momentum,” Fackrell said. “You could feel the energy from everybody – the coaches on the sideline, everybody.”
Rookie punter Justin Vogel has been coming through of late, too, in some clutch situations.
Two weeks ago in Pittsburgh, from the Green Bay 19-yard line late in the fourth quarter of a tie game, Vogel boomed a 53-yarder that the dangerous Antonio Brown returned only two yards.
The 51-yard net with the game on the line was all the Packers could ask for, and even though Brown’s spectacular sideline tip-toe catch still got the Steelers in position for the game-winning field goal, Vogel had done his part.
Then last week, with the Packers clinging to a 17-10 lead late in the third quarter, the offense was backed up on its own 4 when Vogel blasted a 57-yarder. A holding penalty on Tampa Bay resulted in a 67-yard net that flipped the field.
“Obviously a bad punt in those areas leads to points,” said Vogel, whose 42.8-yard net average for the season would set a team single-season record if he can maintain it over the final four games. “I know the stakes are a little higher and there’s more pressure. You either build up to it, or it will affect you negatively.”
With a typical December forecast for Sunday in Cleveland (high of 30 with winds up to 20 miles per hour), Vogel could be in for his first really difficult weather game.
The University of Miami (Fla.) product has punted in a couple of chilly games at Lambeau Field and a drizzly one in Chicago, but so far he’s only practiced in the type of wind that could be blowing off Lake Erie on Sunday.
“I don’t do anything different,” said Vogel, who continues to work on directional punting, trying to keep the ball out of the middle of the field. “You just know that everything in the cold or in the wind, it’s going to really show the flaws if you mess up.
“Say it’s warm out, nice and sunny, no wind, you mis-hit a ball a little bit, no one knows. But in the wind, everyone knows the ball was not hit the way it should have been hit. You just have to focus and be real consistent.”
Late-season Midwestern weather inevitably creates more return opportunities on both punts and kickoffs, putting more stress on the coverage units.
Which brings it back to Davis, whose chances continue to increase and whose confidence remains as high as ever that he’s about to bust a big one.
“It’s just everyone doing their one-eleventh,” he said. “Like I said, it’s really hard to do in this league.
“It’s on me to make a play, everybody to make their blocks, and all of it to come together.”