GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers didn’t go from worst to first in the NFL in special teams, but first-year coordinator Shawn Mennenga has a fast-improving group headed into the playoffs.
Last year under former coach Mike McCarthy and former coordinator Ron Zook, Green Bay finished last in the league in our special teams rankings. This year under Matt LaFleur and Mennenga, Green Bay finished 18th. That’s a ranking, however, weighed down by some early-season sins.
Through Week 12, Green Bay’s special teams ranked 26th in our five-category rankings. It was a ranking salvaged only by the work of kicker Mason Crosby. Over the final five weeks, it:
- Improved from 21st to 17th in starting field position on a kickoff return.
- Improved from 21st to 18th in opponent starting position following a kickoff.
- Improved from 29th to 21st in opponent net punting average.
- Fell from 21st to 24th in net punting average.
- Fell from fourth to fifth in field-goal percentage.
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“I think just our guys growing within the system,” Mennenga said on Friday. “There’s been some consistency with our personnel. There’s been a few injuries here and there but it was a revolving door at the beginning of the season and now we’ve had some guys settle into roles and they’ve learned what we’re trying to do and what we’re teaching them to do. In the return game, Tyler (Ervin has) been really important. We’re blocking better for him but he’s definitely a threat back there and has done a really good job back there for us. It’s young guys growing and getting better and, obviously, he’s definitely a threat back there in the return game.”
Green Bay’s return units were horrible for most of the season. General manager Brian Gutekunst traded Trevor Davis to Oakland and the players given a chance to fill the void, Tremon Smith and Darrius Shepherd, failed miserably. While Smith had two kickoff returns of 30-plus yards, Green Bay unimaginably had minus-8 yards on punt returns and its best punt return of the season, a 3-yarder by Smith, resulted in a fumble.
The arrival of Ervin surprisingly changed everything. In six games this season with Jacksonville, he averaged 21.4 yards per kickoff return and 1.8 yards per punt return. A fumble against the Jets ultimately led to his release. In four games with Green Bay, he’s averaged 9.6 yards per punt return – with seven of his 11 runbacks going for 10-plus yards – and 26.7 yards per kickoff return.
It’s not just Ervin – though the presence of a quality returner tends to bring the best out of the blockers. For weeks, even when the Packers were giving away too many yards on special teams, Mennenga swore his players were doing the right things at practice. The payoff has come down the stretch.
“It takes a while for guys to understand exactly what you’re trying to do with the drills,” Mennenga said.
While Ervin has delivered consistently good field position, Green Bay’s kickoff-coverage has allowed just 19.5 yards per return the past eight games compared to 29.2 yards the first eight games.
Meanwhile, under Zook, penalties were an enormous issue. Last year, the Packers were guilty of 26 penalties – only one off the league lead. This year, the count is down to 13 – tied for the sixth-fewest.
“To me, they’ve really bought into what we’re trying to do,” Mennenga said. “They’re playing hard for us and really, in each of those things, we’ve seen improvement and we’re excited about going into the playoffs and then hopefully the future. I think we’re developing guys that are leaders and I’m seeing more leadership step up. Once you create that culture where guys care about special teams and what’s going on, then they start running it themselves. When the players start running it themselves, you know you’ve finally turned the corner. I’m starting to see that. So, excited about what the future leads to with those guys because we’ve got a lot of good young core players. Hopefully, the future’s bright.”