Green Bay Packers: Week 8 special teams recap

Oct 30, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Green Bay Packers wide receiver Trevor Davis (11) returns a punt in the second quarter of their game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Week 8 brought us an instant classic of offense, with two offensive attacks lighting up the field and scoring on almost every chance they were given.

Unfortunately, Green Bay ended up on the wrong end of the scoreboard in a 33-32 loss on the road to the Atlanta Falcons.

The offense played its best full game of the 2016 season, while the defense struggled to one of its worst.

The special teams had its own impact, but which way did it trend, good or bad?

Let’s look into that.

Dec 27, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; Green Bay Packers kicker Mason Crosby (2) against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Packers 38-8. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Kicker

Kickoffs:

  1. Touchback
  2. ATL 8; 21 yard return (ATL 29)
  3. Touchback; *GB Penalty* (ATL 30)
  4. Touchback
  5. Touchback

Scoring:

  • Extra points: 3/3
  • Field goals: 1/1 (Made: 29)

After a bad ending to his Week 7 performance where he not only had a field goal blocked (his first miss of the season) but also missed an extra point (his first PAT miss since the rule changes at the start of 2015 moved the ball to 33 yards away), Crosby had a relatively quiet return to form.

His kicking went back to his usual reliable ways, with him tapping in all three of his extra point attempts to go along with a short field goal right before halftime. He could have had a shot at another towards the end — which would have likely been his first attempt of the year from 50+ yards away — but his offense was unable to get him close enough to even have the opportunity to try and steal away the game.

As for his kickoffs, he performed as expected. He had four touchbacks out of five kicks (the penalty on the 3rd kickoff was not due to him), with only one seeing any sort of return. The one which was returned was a planned short kick, arriving inside the Atlanta 10; the eventual return wasn’t great for Green Bay, but that says more about the coverage on the play than Crosby.

All in all, a nice day from the reliable leg of Crosby. It’s just too bad he wasn’t given the chance to turn it into a game-winning one.

Sep 18, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Green Bay Packers punter Jacob Schum (10) against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings defeated the Packers 17-14. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Punter

Punts:

  1. 58 yards (ATL 22); 11 yard return (ATL 33) *ATL Penalty* (ATL 22)
  2. 55 yards; Touchback
  3. 50 yards (ATL 15); 18 yard return (ATL 33)

This is not the Jacob Schum I know.

After a couple of decent weeks which consisted of a single punt each, Green Bay’s punter was forced to step up to the plate for multiple punts. If you’re like me, that thought is unsettling considering his propensity for short kicks and shanks so far this year. Surprisingly however, he showed off what his critics (me included) didn’t think he even had: a powerful leg.

Coming into this game averaging the 2nd worst in gross kicking yardage in the league and having just a single kick which hit the 50 yard mark on the season, Schum managed to make all three of his attempts hit that mark.

This did bring up a different problem for him, of course. By putting his focus on forcing the ball deep, the ability he was likely picked up for in the first place — kick placement — took a hit, as did his hangtime. The second kick ended up going into the endzone after traveling 55 yards, resulting in a lackluster 35 yard net for the punt. The other two went far, but the aforementioned lack of hangtime which came with them allowed for returns of double-digit yardage (though one did go back to the original spot due to an Atlanta penalty).

It is good to see that Schum has the leg strength to make long kicks and potentially flip the field if necessary due to being pinned deep in Green Bay territory, but it does bring up the question of if that distance trade-off is really worth it.

Schum may have the strength to put distance behind the ball, but he is still limited enough in power to where he cannot give a high-level combination of distance, hangtime, and placement. The elite legs in the league — Johnny Hekker, Marquette King, Dustin Colquitt, Thomas Morstead, etc — are able to boot the ball far while also preventing good return attempts with their placement and hangtime. When you don’t have a guy who can combine multiple facets like Schum, you basically have to pick your poison; would you rather have a far-but-returnable kick, or one that isn’t as likely to be returned but pretty much gift-wrapped yardage in lieu of distance?

We’ve seen both from Schum now this year, and neither really is appealing. The former is more high-variance, and relies on your coverage team making swift tackles on first contact; the latter takes away the high ceiling provided by the possibility of missed tackles, but slides in a pretty decent floor underneath the returner so he doesn’t have to even worry about taking a risk to give his offense nice starting position.

Such is life when you get stuck picking from the bargain bin for your punting options, I guess.

Hopefully in future games, Schum is able to settle into a somewhat happy medium between these two areas; if not, these issues will likely find a way to smite Green Bay somewhere down the line.

Oct 30, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Green Bay Packers wide receiver Trevor Davis (11) returns a punt as Atlanta Falcons free safety Robenson Therezie (27) attempts to make a tackle in the second quarter of their game at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Return Units

Punts:

  1. 55 yard return (ATL 15)
  2. 5 yard return (GB 28); *GB Penalty* (GB 14)

Kickoffs:

  1. Touchback
  2. Touchback
  3. Touchback
  4. Touchback
  5. Touchback
  6. Touchback
  7. Touchback

A completely different tale was written between the two aspects of this game.

One one hand, we have the kickoff return unit, which saw a ton of kicks come their way but not a single one was even attempted to be returned. I’ll take that field position over what likely would be lesser yardage nine times out of ten, but Green Bay does have a whole host of guys capable of breaking a big play so it’d be nice to see at least one chance a game where the returners can try to make something happen.

On the other hand, we have a high-variance showing from the punt return game. The first return was huge, with Trevor Davis breaking out on a 55 yard effort to get all the way into the red zone; from there, Green Bay didn’t have much left to do to capitalize and put up a TD. As good as the first one was however, the second was as far in the other direction as could be. There wasn’t much of a return, but a huge penalty took the ball all the way back within Green Bay’s 15 yard line. That drive eventually became Green Bay’s final touchdown, but situations like that where the offense gets pinned back have a habit of fizzling out, and with Green Bay down on the scoreboard 26-24 at that point they desperately needed some type of score to keep themselves in the game.

Overall, I’d rate the efforts as a net positive, but these kind of penalties need to get nipped in the bud before they have an adverse affect on the game. The Packers offense is just now seeming to find a consistent rhythm after sputtering through massive inconsistency most of the season; committing foolish penalties to undo the positive gains they have made by setting them up in awful starting position (something that definitely has plagued them this season) is the last thing Green Bay needs now — well, outside of more injuries at least.

Aug 12, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers safety Kentrell Brice (29) during the game against the Cleveland Browns at Lambeau Field. Green Bay won 17-11. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Coverage Units

Punts:

  1. 11 yard return (ATL 33) *ATL Penalty* (ATL 22)
  2. Touchback
  3. 18 yard return (ATL 33)

Kickoffs:

  1. Touchback
  2. 21 yard return (ATL 29)
  3. Touchback; *GB Penalty* (ATL 30)
  4. Touchback
  5. Touchback

Speaking of penalties, this unit also has had their fair share of gaffes this year, handing free yardage to their opposition. In this game, there was only one such instance, but it was still a dumb mistake worth noting.

That mistake was Kentrell Brice somehow managing to go offsides on the third kickoff. The amount of yardage was small (5 yards), but this was free yardage given to a team who didn’t require any help with that (seeing as the Falcons put up 367 yards of offense) which was facing an injury-depleted defense in need of any small bit of assistance it could find. That penalty was at the start of one of Atlanta’s six scoring drives, and while I don’t necessarily think the 5 yards would have changed much there, it still could have and that’s reason enough to call them out on it. Quite simply, just don’t outrun your kicker and you won’t hand out free yardage.

Past that kickoff, there was only one kick which didn’t end as a touchback: the second one. This one was designed to go short, so it is up to the coverage guys to get down there and make a quick tackle. If that was the plan (and based on Crosby’s leg strength, having a kick barely get inside the Atlanta 10 makes that seem pretty likely), the the return guys would know beforehand he was going to pop it short and they would need to make haste on stopping it. They didn’t successfully do so, letting the returner almost reach the Atlanta 30 before finally bringing him down.

As for the punt return coverage, I’m willing to give them a bit more leeway. As I delved into with Schum, he’s a kicker who at best almost certainly is giving you one of two things: a short kick that should give the returners time to close in on the returner before he even has the ball, or a long one which makes him start from further back but will most likely give him the space to try picking up some yardage. This game had only the latter in store, but as I mentioned with the short Crosby kick, if would be strange if there wasn’t some level of communication to let his guys know he was going for distance over placement; with that in mind, they should be able to get themselves in the mindset of being ready to blaze down towards the returner with the expectation of needing to tackle him rather than simply get close enough to force a fair catch.

On the two punts which didn’t end as touchbacks, the guys in this unit could not stop the returner quickly, giving up double-digit yardage each time. Again, I put part of that on Schum’s kick (there’s only so much ground guys can cover in a short amount of time, especially considering he did not have great hangtime along with the fact that they must fight through blocks to get there in the first place), but if the plan is going to be weighted towards distance over placement, the coverage players must find a way to break through the opposing blockers on the outside and contain the return threat faster than we saw and take him down immediately. They got lucky with the first punt — where Atlanta committed a penalty to negate the double-digit gain — but the second one almost gained two first downs’ worth of yardage to start Atlanta beyond their own 30. The defense actually bailed them out with back-to-back sacks — their only two of the game — to force a punt, but more often than not when a team in a rhythm like the one the Falcons displayed all game will use any little advantage with aplomb.

Overall it is mostly quibbles over little things with this whole unit right now — none of which ended up hurting Green Bay when it came down to it — but the odds are against seeing that happen for an extended period of time.

A little mistake in communication here or a gift of yardage there in most games can have a significant effect (though one mostly lost to the deep analysis beyond simple box scores) on the outcome of a contest.

These guys are doing alright as a whole and have come a long way from their terrible 2014 season in the past two years, but there is still much room for improvement. Even with a jump back to respectability, they are still outside the top half of the league’s units by most metrics (Football Outsiders had them at #19 going into this week’s slate of games).

Green Bay won’t turn into the Eagles’ superb unit overnight (nor should the Packers necessarily need them to), but continued improvement — especially when it comes to eliminating negative plays and penalties — can help them rise further up the list and continue their ascent into being the type of group which takes nothing away from their offense and defense while tossing in some extra gains on occasion.

For a third unit which rarely gets discussion outside of mistakes in today’s game, that’s all a team should really need from their special teams.

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