The Green Bay Packers’ special teams are much improved over last season, if only because they couldn’t have gotten worse.
Last year under former coordinator Ron Zook, the Packers fielded the worst special teams in the league, according to separate formulas put together by myself and longtime NFL writer Rick Gosselin of The Talk of Fame Network.
Heading into Week 8’s games, the Packers are 19th in the first edition of the Huber Special Teams Rankings. The work of kicker Mason Crosby and punter J.K. Scott have offset the feeble performances of the kickoff-return, kickoff-coverage and punt-return units, all of which are 24th or worse.
“We want to perform at the highest level we can,” first-year coordinator Shawn Mennenga said. “We’re working hard every day to fix those things. Obviously, we’ve been covering the kickoffs. We’re always trying to cover and change field position, and then the return game, we’re working hard to get that going. We’ve had a lot of moving parts with injuries and those kinds of things, but that’s not an excuse. We’ve got to get the guys that are in there ready to go and block better and return better and help us change field position.”
Field position is the name of the game in our five-category rankings.
The first column in the chart below is starting field position following a kickoff return. With the failed signing of Tremon Smith and subsequent trade of Trevor Davis, and the struggles of rookie Darrius Shepherd, the Packers are 24th with an average starting point of the 24.1-yard line.
The second is net punting average. Even with a couple big returns by Oakland’s Davis last week, Scott is third in the league with a net average of 44.4 yards. Thanks to the second-best hang time in the league (4.65 seconds, according to Pro Football Focus), opponents have returned only 14 of his 35 punts.
The third is field goal percentage. Crosby is 10-of-11 on field goals, that 90.9 percent success rate ranking seventh individually.
The fourth is the opponents’ average starting point following a kickoff. Green Bay is 27th in the league with an opponent starting point of the 26.8-yard line; it was 31st in that mark through four games.
The fifth is the opponents’ net punting average. Green Bay is 24th in that category, due in large part to an unspeakably bad minus-8 return yards on the season.
Not directly reflected in our rankings are penalties, though they do show up in the field-position numbers. Green Bay has been guilty of six special-teams infractions, 11th-fewest in the league and a sharp improvement over last year’s 26. Green Bay is minus-1 in turnovers, with Shepherd’s fumbled punt against Detroit.
Mennenga sees progress.
“You might not see it in games but, yeah, I see it in practice,” he said. “Our guys are understanding the system better and they’re understanding the techniques better and those kinds of things of what’s expected and we’re getting good leadership from within. Now, it’s just a matter of going out and executing. I like where we’re going and as we get some guys back and get some guys solidified in certain roles and those kinds of things, I think we will see progress.”
Under esteemed coordinator Dave Toub, the Chiefs finished first in my rankings and third in Gosselin’s rankings last season. His units are off to a slow start by his standards, checking in just ahead of Green Bay at No. 18.
“Dave is the gold standard when it comes to coaching special teams in the NFL,” Mennenga said. “He’s probably the most respected special teams coordinator in the league, and for good reason. Year in and year out for the Bears and with the Chiefs, they’ve got one of the top couple units in the league. His players play with great effort and fundamentals and executing week in and week out. It’s an honor. I know him well. He was actually my strength coach at Missouri about 30 years ago, so I know him through that.”
The Chiefs will test Green Bay’s inconsistent coverage units. Toub said this week that big-play receiver Tyreek Hill could get in on the action – he had four punt-return touchdowns while handling those duties in 2016 through 2018 and a kickoff-return touchdown while in that role in 2016. Rookie Mecole Hardman’s two punt returns have gone for 36 and 20 yards.
“They can form a college four-by-one [hundred-meter relay] team with some of the guys they’ve got,” Mennenga said.