It didn’t take a touchdown return or even a turnover for special teams to play a major role in Sunday’s game.
An impromptu fake punt for a first down, two onside kicks that went Green Bay’s way, a big fourth-quarter punt-return and a missed chip shot that ended a kicker’s perfect season all factored into the Packers’ 35-26 victory over the Buccaneers at Lambeau Field.
“It takes three phases all the time, and it did today,” punter Tim Masthay said.
The special teams madness began with Masthay, who made a heads-up play when the Packers had seemingly gone three-and-out on their first drive of the day.
On fourth-and-1 from the Green Bay 21-yard line, Masthay saw Tampa Bay linebacker Jacob Cutrera barreling toward him untouched through the right side of the line. So he took off running, losing the ball momentarily as it appeared Cutrera got a piece of it going by, and got the first down.
“Being a right-footed punter, that’s the clearest vision is right over that right guard and right tackle, so I was able to see him early enough to tuck it and pick up the first,” Masthay said.
He then lost the handle on the ball, again, without any contact from another player, but fortunately the ball tumbled out of bounds. Masthay said the last time he ran with the ball like that was on a similar play his senior year in college at Kentucky, avoiding a potential punt-block by Tennessee, and he took a wallop from now-Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo at the end of it.
Maybe that big hit flashed into his subconscious as he got into the open field.
“The hands are cold, slippery ball, all that stuff, but I just dropped it, plain and simple,” he said. “As soon as it hit the ground, I’m just praying, ‘Please, Lord, get that thing out of bounds.’”
The Packers took advantage of the good fortune to continue their opening drive for a touchdown, ultimately covering 88 yards in 15 plays that consumed eight minutes, 27 seconds, their longest drive in terms of snaps and time of possession all season.
The possession game was what Tampa Bay Head Coach Raheem Morris was trying to play late in the first half when he tried the first of two onside kicks.
The Bucs had just pulled within 14-10 with 4:52 left in the second quarter when kicker Michael Koenen dribbled an onside kick right in front of him. The ball never went 10 yards, but Packers rookie linebacker D.J. Smith mistakenly tried to recover it anyway as he dived on top of Koenen, and the officials initially ruled that Koenen had legally recovered the ball after Smith touched it.
The Packers challenged the call, though, and replays revealed that Koenen touched the ball just before Smith did, giving the ball to the Packers at the Tampa Bay 38. Green Bay scored in five plays for a 21-10 halftime lead.
“We understand teams are going to try to steal series from us because our offense is so explosive,” fullback John Kuhn said.
Tampa Bay tried it, again, in the fourth quarter when it wasn’t such a surprise. Trailing 28-26 with 4:25 left, Koenen attempted the same straight-ahead dribbler, and Kuhn was able to come out of a mini-scrum with it for Green Bay.
Kuhn said the kick-return team had discussed all the proper assignments on the sideline ahead of time, including the directive not to go after the ball if it wasn’t going to go 10 yards.
“That’s kind of why I think I got to it, because their team and our team were feeling it out waiting for it to go 10 yards,” Kuhn said. “I just happened to get to it at the right time.”
Randall Cobb also had a timely punt return in the fourth quarter that could have effectively sealed the game, but the Packers didn’t take advantage.
Earlier in the fourth quarter, the Bucs were trailing 28-19 and decided to punt on fourth-and-3 from their own 37. Cobb found daylight and ran the punt back 55 yards, and even with a Green Bay penalty on the play, the Packers still had it in Tampa Bay territory with 5:55 left, up two scores.
Only quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw an interception on the very first snap, giving the Bucs life. Fortunately, when Kuhn recovered the onside kick 90 seconds later with the margin just two points, the offense atoned with a 40-yard TD pass from Rodgers to Jordy Nelson for the game’s final score.
“We took a couple lumps out there offensive and defensive-wise,” Kuhn said. “Special teams stayed pretty consistent throughout the game and picked us up when we needed to.”
The only blemish was Mason Crosby’s missed 29-yard field goal attempt, following Tramon Williams’ second interception of the game, with 1:36 left.
The Packers didn’t really need the additional points, but Crosby had been a perfect 16-for-16 on field goals this season, and he had made a club-record 23 straight in the regular season dating back to last year. His kick hit the right upright.
Ironically, his last miss also came from 29 yards out, against San Francisco last year in Week 13. It also came from the left hash mark and it hit an upright, except it was the left one that time.
“The 29-yard, left hash, … I think we’re going to avoid that spot from now on,” Crosby said.
“From that distance, I just need to drill it through. That was one of those I gave a little too much credit to the wind from that short.” Additional coverage - Packers vs. Bucs