The Green Bay Packers finished 29th in Rick Gosselin’s annual special teams rankings. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were better, but not by much, at 22nd. In Part 5 of a series previewing the NFC Championship Game, SI.com beat writers Bill Huber in Green Bay and Zach Goodall in Tampa break down the matchups on special teams.
Green Bay’s Special Teams
There’s literally nothing for coordinator Shawn Mennenga to hang his hat on entering this game.
The strength of the unit is kicker Mason Crosby, who didn’t miss a field goal all season. Even that positive went awry against the Rams in the divisional round, when Hunter Bradley’s snap on an extra point missed its mark by several feet. Punter/holder JK Scott panicked and threw the ball to Crosby, who got hit and suffered an injured shoulder. Crosby will be fine for the game but it was latest blunder for a unit that’s given away field position like candy on Halloween.
This is the carnage since Week 7: a blocked punt at Houston, a blocked punt (which went forward so not officially a block) at San Francisco, punt-return touchdowns allowed against Jacksonville and Philadelphia, a fumbled kickoff return against Indianapolis, long kickoff returns against Philadelphia and Detroit, and Tavon Austin’s fumbled punt return against Chicago.
There were also dodged bullets with an onside kick ruled recovered out of bounds by Detroit, a blocked field goal against Tennessee that was eliminated by a questionable offside penalty and a punt that was almost blocked against Carolina. Bradley’s snaps have been inconsistent throughout his three years with the team, with Scott saving him frequently.
On returns, Green Bay ranked 30th on punts and 31st on kickoffs. On coverage, it ranked 32nd on punts and 23rd kickoffs. Only two punters had a worse net average than Scott. The Packers have had only one punt return of longer than 10 yards (11 yards by Tyler Ervin, who jump-started the special teams last season but is on injured reserve). Malik Taylor hasn’t done a thing on kickoff returns, though he’s at least held onto the ball.
At least Mennenga’s units haven’t turned bad into worse by committing penalties. Green Bay was guilty of six special-teams penalties, third-fewest in the league behind San Francisco (three) and Tampa Bay (four).
Tampa Bay’s Special Teams
Tampa Bay's special teams units are far from perfect, but Bruce Arians is a-okay with how things are compared to years past with the Bucs in that department.
Gone are the days of the failed Roberto Aguayo experiment; Matt Gay didn't stick around after missing eight field goals and another five extra points in 2019. Instead, Tampa Bay finally has some stability at kicker with Ryan Succop, who went 28-of-31 on field goals during the regular season (although he, too, missed five extra-point attempts). Punter Bradley Pinion ranks in the middle of the pack across the league with a net average of 40.2 yards per punt.
The issues, however, stem beyond the legs of Tampa Bay's special teams. The combination of Jaydon Mickens and Kenjon Barner has been middling on returns, leaving us wondering why Antonio Brown hasn't gotten a true shot on the kick and punt return teams. Coverage has been shaky on punts, as well, as seen on several big returns by New Orleans just last week. As a whole, the Bucs have missed 23 tackles across special teams coverage units this entire season, per Pro Football Focus, more than any other team in the playoffs.
Listen, I'm the furthest thing from a special teams expert and it would be hard for me to entirely grade the unit. I think there's room for improvement, but all in all, the Bucs' specialists are far from a concern. However, missed tackles in return coverage can come back and bite you, and Tampa Bay surely is susceptible to such a blunder.