Improving Special Teams in 2019

The Packers struggled greatly on special teams in 2018. In 2019, there's nowhere to go but up with a new special teams coordinator and a second year punter.

If you asked Packers fans what the team’s weakness was in 2018, you would probably hear a lot of different, yet valid, answers. The defense didn’t create enough turnovers. The offense wasn’t able to move the ball effectively. Both true. But perhaps the most fatal flaw of the 2018 Packers was special teams.

Special teams was supposed to be one of the most improved areas in 2018, considering General Manager Brian Gutekunst invested two draft picks into the unit, locking up his punter of the future JK Scott in the fifth round and long snapper Hunter Bradley in the seventh round. Unfortunately, both rookies had their fair share of struggles with JK Scott posting nine touchbacks in 2018 which was the most in the NFL. The unit as a whole didn’t perform much better.

It wasn’t all bad. The unit had its share of highlight reel moments, too. In Week 2, Geronimo Allison blocked a Vikings punt that Josh Jackson caught in the end zone for a touchdown. In Week 10 against the Dolphins, Raven Greene successfully executed a fake punt sneak that went for 26-yards and gave the Packers a first down.

Those moments were few and far between all season, however, with special teams proving to be so lackluster that coordinator Ron Zook was fired after four seasons with the team. Head Coach Matt LaFleur brought in Shawn Mennenga this offseason to replace Zook, with Mennenga spending seven seasons in Cleveland as the Browns’ special teams assistant. The hope of course is that this new hire will rejuvenate a unit much in need of improvement.

One thing Green Bay’s special teams lacked in 2018 was consistency. Even one of the most reliable Packers, kicker Mason Crosby, struggled in a few games. His worst performance of the season (and his career) came against Detroit in Week 5, where he missed four field goals and an extra point, resulting in 13 points. The Packers lost that game by eight.

While the Packers did bring in kicking competition for Crosby, the job still feels like his to lose by a wide margin. He averaged 81.1% on field goal attempts this past season, which is just slightly above his career average (80.4%).

His training camp competitor, Sam Ficken, spent the last two seasons with the Los Angeles Rams. He made two of three field goal attempts in 2017 and one of three in 2018. This could be more about sending a message to Crosby than anything else. He’s entering a contract season and if he’s unable to perform at the high level he’s consistently been playing at, the Packers could be looking to get younger at the position.

Another issue facing the unit was the return game. Trevor Davis, the team’s speedy return man when healthy, was unable to play for a majority of the season which resulted in special teams musical chairs. Tramon Williams, the team’s 36-year-old corner, saw snaps as a returner, along with Ty Montgomery (we won’t talk about it), Bashaud Breeland (who’s now a Chief), Randall Cobb (who’s now a Cowboy), and a few of the rookie receivers. While speedy cornerback Jaire Alexander was also an option in the return game in 2018, it’s not ideal to have any of the team’s starters serving large roles on special teams.

Trevor Davis likely won’t latch onto the roster in a crowded wide receiver room, so his only chance is to stick as the team’s returner for another season. While he spent most of the 2018 season on injured reserve, he was one of the top returners in the league in 2017. He ranked fourth in kick return yards and third in yards per punt return. He has the ability to flip the field, if he can stay on it.

An additional name to consider in the return game would be rookie safety Darnell Savage, but to me, he falls into the same category as Jaire Alexander. While he’s got the speed and aggressive nature you look for in a special teams player, he’s also going to be an immediate starter on defense, and you wouldn’t want to risk him getting injured.

Likely special teams candidates for this season include James Crawford, who led the team in special teams tackles in 2018, Raven Greene, and Tony Brown. Also look for rookie linebacker Ty Summers and rookie cornerback Ka’Dar Hollman to begin taking some immediate snaps on special teams, too. These are all names who will should see rotational snaps on defense, but could see the bulk of their snaps coming on special teams, at least initially.

Someone like wide receiver Darrius Shepherd out of North Dakota State could be this year’s undrafted free agent to make the 53-man roster. His 5’11”, 194lb frame makes him an ideal kickoff and punt returner. If he does indeed make the roster as a returner, that would likely spell the end for Trevor Davis in Green Bay. Returner could be one of the key position battles to watch for during the preseason.

While the special teams unit will require a lot of work, the bright side is that the unit has plenty of room for improvement. It won’t take much for 2019 special teams to immediately outperform 2018.

 

Maggie Loney is a writer for Cheesehead TV and podcasts for the Pack-A-Day Podcast and Pack's What She Said. Find her on Twitter at @MaggieJLoney.

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Comments (35)

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PatrickGB's picture

May 28, 2019 at 12:15 pm

Special teams are very important. We have been bottom ranked for way too long. And it’s more than PR, KR and the kickers that are key to a resurgence. It’s all the other guys making penalty free blocks and tackles. I sure hope we improve with new coaches and players.

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Turophile's picture

May 28, 2019 at 03:37 pm

The Packers have been investing in the highest RAS guys for years, so their ST guys generally have plus athleticism and speed. I think the poor ST showing in recent years is more down to coaching and emphasis.

Put a good coordinator in there and train ST smarter. Then you could see a good jump in performance, in 2019.

As a sidenote, I'd like to see some real competition for Crosby. there is Sam Ficken, but I'm not sure he is any threat to take over from Crosby. I'd also like to see punter J.K.Scott take his game up a level this year.

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LambeauPlain's picture

May 28, 2019 at 12:26 pm

I recall Zook, in a presser after yet another loss and just putrid ST play with holding calls galore, actually said "well, last year the refs weren't calling those"!

Just clueless.

Mennenga can't possibly be worse. Scott was an outstanding college punter and Zook ruined him in just one year.

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Coldworld's picture

May 28, 2019 at 02:48 pm

I agree. Too often the Packers’ special team unit has looked bemused or failed to stay in assignments. I understand that injuries cause churn in personnel, but the consistency with which our non kicking or returning personnel malfunctioned was not acceptable. Add to that the penalties and you have a bottom feeding unit.

Ignoring discussions about the kicker, punter and returner we simply have been consistently poor at the meat and potatoes of ST play. That has to change.

We have stocked the roster with ST body types. Hopefully that will lead to improvement but above all, we need adequate coaching. Even a mid ranked performance would be a drastic upgrade.

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jeremyjjbrown's picture

May 28, 2019 at 01:03 pm

"Trevor Davis likely won’t latch onto the roster in a crowded wide receiver room, so his only chance is to stick as the team’s returner for another season."

No thanks. The NFL is phasing out the kick return. It's time to stop wasting roster spots on kick return only guys.

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wildbill's picture

May 28, 2019 at 01:21 pm

It shouldn’t be hard to find somebody who is useful at something other than just returning kicks to be our return guy. Spots on the 53 man roster are too valuable to waste as we usually have a lot of injuries and being a value in another role is important

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4thand10's picture

May 30, 2019 at 12:18 am

Ideally you want your 4th or 5th receiving option to return kicks and punts or your 3rd or 4th DB. Or....if your Bill Belicheck, have a OL do it and watch 15 different players attempt to tackle him :-) I disagree on the “ wasted roster spot” ideology on a returner. Field position is huge in games... A good PR/KR can totally swing momentum and take the wind out of an opposing team. Think Devon Hester or Mel Grey.

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greengold's picture

May 28, 2019 at 02:11 pm

I like Darrius Shepherd to take over PR/KR. Add to that he is a solid slot WR. The kid can play.

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Lare's picture

May 28, 2019 at 02:32 pm

The three rules of special teams- kick the ball, catch the ball, don't do anything stupid.

Zook couldn't teach that, hopefully Mennenga can.

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fastmoving's picture

May 28, 2019 at 02:55 pm

Man, JK Scott looks really young. Just like a kid. Woahh, time is running and I feel even older than normal now.

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Handsback's picture

May 29, 2019 at 07:46 am

Agree dude....looking at him in that picture, looks like he could still be playing high school ball.

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Community Guy's picture

May 28, 2019 at 03:57 pm

i hope JK Scott earns his draft pedigree and roster spot this year.

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jannes bjornson's picture

May 28, 2019 at 10:59 pm

A fifth round pick does not a pedigree make, but his dad was a great track and field man for the Badgers. Scott will be an exceptional punter once he figures out the cold weather and has Zook out of the picture. The specialists work more with consultants than team sponsored coaches.
It's up to Menenga to fill out the strategy of the placement and get the rest of the group on the same page.

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flackcatcher's picture

May 28, 2019 at 04:04 pm

(SIGH) All to true about ST. But let's not overlook the effect injuries had on last years team. With the Packers as thin as they were, any injury would cut deeply into overall ST play. It came and we all saw the result. The last 6 games were well beyond ugly for special teams, and for that Ron Zook deserve to get the axe. But you can't do nothing with nothing. All we fans can hope for is that IAMGUTE draft and free agent signings pan out this year. Otherwise.........

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TheKanataThrilla's picture

May 29, 2019 at 08:54 am

I agree that injury plays a role, but it seemed we took a penalty on almost every ST play. I am not sure how many holding penalties we got on touchbacks. There we even a few offside calls when we were returning. Just abysmal.

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Leatherhead's picture

May 28, 2019 at 04:35 pm

1) Always go for two after a TD, unless a 1 point conversion wins the game.

2) Punt less. If you're outside your own 40, and it's 5 yards or less for a first down, go for it, unless a punt wins the game. When you do have to punt, punt towards the sidelines to minimize the chance of a return.

3) Kick fewer field goals. FG attempts over 40 yards....because some are missed....are only worth 2.something points. If it's less than 5 yards for a first down, go for it and try to get the TD.

4) If you can take a touchback on the kickoff, do it, and let Rodgers start from the 25.

5) Stop returning punts. Just stop. Focus on preventing the fakes from succeeding, try to pressure an occasional bad punt, and then fair catch.

These simple steps would dramatically improve our special teams. Remember, the special teams are largely populated by rookies and UDFAs and they're going to make more mistakes than your veterans on offense and defense. Put the ball in the hands of Rodgers & Co. and let them win the games; don't let special teams lose them for you.

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albert999's picture

May 28, 2019 at 04:43 pm

Wow
Nice post old school

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porupack's picture

May 28, 2019 at 09:46 pm

Yep. OS, you convinced me. Now that it looks like GB could field a defense capable of of quick dispatch...then your idea would be more feasible than in past.

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dobber's picture

May 29, 2019 at 07:26 am

The data actually supports this approach, and we're seeing more teams implementing these ideas (going for it on 4th and (relatively) short, kicking less, etc.).

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Leatherhead's picture

May 29, 2019 at 09:48 am

Exactly, Dobber. In fact, you are seeing the league trying to find a way to do without the kickoff because of the injuries.

You pay Rodgers, Adams, Graham, Bakhtiari, etc. huge amounts of money, and then you allow games to be decided by minimum wage rookies and UDFAs. How is that a successful business model?

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jannes bjornson's picture

May 28, 2019 at 11:03 pm

Back to the glory years of 1930-33 with Old School at the helm. What about Desmond Howard in the SB year? Next year, Wolf wouldn't pay him and they didn't make another SB winner's circle. Sp teams matter. Every play in the game matters. You have to take advantage of the moment and win the edge.

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Leatherhead's picture

May 29, 2019 at 09:12 am

If you'd rather take the ball out of Aaron Rodgers hands and let the game be decided by Ty Montgomery and Josh Jones, be my guest.

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Leatherhead's picture

May 29, 2019 at 09:50 am

If every play matters, why wouldn't you go for two every time? Why wouldn't you choose to take possession on a punt instead of risking a turnover or penalty?

Statistically, on average, you'll get a long return once every four years. I guarantee you that in that same amount of time you have multiple turnovers and way more penalty yardage.

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ILPackerBacker's picture

May 29, 2019 at 11:54 am

you are just wrong about this
Howard wanted to play WR and not be limited to ST
that's why he left

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4thand10's picture

May 30, 2019 at 12:26 am

It’s more about making a team start at their own 2 yard line and having a chance for a safety. Or if your team gets stopped at the 26 -27 yard line on your own side of the field...having the ability to punt it to the other teams 5-15 yard line and making them play the whole field. Until the NFL eliminates it.....field position is still gold.

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fthisJack's picture

May 29, 2019 at 08:00 am

disagree with 1, 3, and 5. 1 and 3 really depend on the circumstances in the game. number 5 is just a no. if you catch a punt and nobody is within 10 yards of you ....you fair catch? no way!

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Leatherhead's picture

May 29, 2019 at 09:52 am

Yeah, go ahead and return it, take a block in the back penalty and move backwards. That's the problem. Or you get tackled and you turn it over, like Tramon did last year. And 10 yards? How long do you think it takes a guy in punt coverage to cover 10 yards?

Catch the ball, give it to the offense. That's who you are paying. Those are your best players. Stop letting UDFAs and rookies make costly mistakes that cost you games.

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Since'61's picture

May 29, 2019 at 08:47 am

I don’t know about always going for 2 after a TD. Failure can end up costing the game by one point. I would go for 2 if I’m playing with a 2 score lead and I want to open up the lead and put more pressure on the opponent.

Fair catching punts is fine since punt returns are about possession.

As for never punting outside your own 40 that depends on the score, time remaining etc. It puts a lot of pressure on the defense when you fail, when in fact you could pin your opponent inside their own 20 and hopefully make them punt it back to you and win the field position battle. But there are other factors for deciding on punts besides being outside your own 40.

Item #4 is absolutely correct as we know from last season’s Rams game. Thanks, Since ‘61

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albert999's picture

May 28, 2019 at 04:46 pm

New coaches will help ST surely this year.
Can’t do much worse than zook

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IceBowl's picture

May 28, 2019 at 06:36 pm

Yes, do all those things that have been done for 50 + years. They are the staple of ST. The things that have to executed on the down and distance protocol.

But, we also have to incorporate trickery, as we saw last year from some teams. EFFECTIVELY!! The NFL is a copycat league (everyone says), and those "trick" ST plays last year have to be incorporated into the Pack's arsenal. Available, and executable on every opportunity.

There are opportunities available beside pinning a team down to the 5. Get creative, pass for a 1st down or more. But it must be as normal as an off tackle run on 2nd down. The holder has to be able to make a pass, the P protector has to be able to make a pass.

Many more teams will be trying it this year, and I hope the Pack is the most effective of all .

Especially since last year, ST being an Offense and a D are now part of a SMART team winning strategy.

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stockholder's picture

May 28, 2019 at 06:39 pm

Desmond Howard. Risen, Freeman , Brooks, Mayes, Beebe.Mayfield. Yes, the packers do have room for Davis. And yes he will make this club as a returner. Why? Who else won't fumble? His sure hands on punts keep him on the roster. He is my breakout player. He is Desmond Howard.

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EddieLeeIvory's picture

May 28, 2019 at 06:39 pm

I have faith in Crosby & Scott.

I don't have a lot in our coverage units or our blocking on returns.

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GLM's picture

May 28, 2019 at 09:20 pm

No one has mentioned using Dexter Williams as a kickoff return man. I don't know that he returned kickoffs in college, or not, but you give that man a hole to run through, and you just might get a touchdown.

I'm excited to have him on the team, and he should be given an opportunity to return kickoffs.

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

May 29, 2019 at 12:40 am

Dexter Williams returned 5 kickoffs for a 17.4 yard average as a freshman and sophomore, but none in his last two seasons. He didn't return any punts.

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ILPackerBacker's picture

May 29, 2019 at 11:36 am

Amazing to me how facts are overlooked and ignored.

Tramon was possibly the WORST punt returner in NFL history last year. He alone cost 2 games and heavily contributed to a third loss as a returner.

If you can't find a single person on an NFL roster to fair catch EVERY BALL after it is evident nobody has judgment then you stop putting the disaster there.

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