Green Bay Packers' Special Teams Have to Get Better in 2014

Bob FoxContributor IMarch 31, 2014

Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, left, talks with special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum and during an NFL football practice Sunday, Jan. 30, 2011, in Green Bay, Wis. The Packers are scheduled to face the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl on Sunday, Feb. 6. (AP Photo/Mike Roemer)
Mike Roemer

In 2013, the Green Bay Packers finished 20th in the NFL in the special teams rankings compiled by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News.

That's is a drop of eight spots from the 2012 special team rankings.

Since Shawn Slocum was named special teams coordinator in 2009, the Packers have finished 31st, 29th, tied for 13th, 12th and 20th.

Those aren't exactly elite rankings.

Maybe that's why head coach Mike McCarthy decided to hire Ron Zook to help coach the special teams in early February.

Perhaps the hiring of Zook was a not-so-subtle nudge to let Slocum know he is on notice.

McCarthy has coached with Zook before in New Orleans, when McCarthy was the offensive coordinator for five years (2000-2004) and Zook was the defensive coordinator for two years.

Zook is best-known for being the head coach at both Florida and Illinois in the college ranks, but he also spent three years as the special teams coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1996 to 1998.

So, where do the Packers have to improve on special teams?

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Things seem to be okay with the actual kicking game, as kicker Mason Crosby had the finest season of his career in 2013 by making 33 of 37 field-goal attempts, including five from over 50 yards out.

Punter Tim Masthay continues to be one of the better punters in the NFL, as he had an average of 44.6 yards per attempt (39.0 net yards) and put 22 of his punts inside the opposition's 20-yard line.

So the problem lies elsewhere. If you take a closer look at Gosselin's 2013 ratings, you can see a couple of important items.

The biggest one is where the Packers were in terms of where their opponents started after a kickoff. The Packers were dead last in the NFL in that department, as teams started at their 25.6-yard line.

The Packers also gave up a return for a touchdown on a kickoff.

Covering kickoffs was a big problem for the Packers last year. So was returning kickoffs, as the Packers were ranked 30th in the NFL in that department, with an average return of just 20.3 yards.

The Packers were better at returning punts, as their average return was 11.8 yards, which was good for seventh in the NFL.

But just like with covering kickoffs, the punt coverage was not good.

Some of the coverage issues can be explained by all the injuries the Packers had in 2013. A number of players who would have focused solely on special teams were forced to play a number of snaps on both offense and defense.

With that said, the Packers also had a couple of bright spots on special teams last year, as the Packers recovered an onside kick on their only attempt and the team also blocked a punt.

In addition, the Packers did not have a field-goal attempt or punt blocked themselves.

So what will the Packers do to improve on special teams in 2014?

The presence of Zook should help, as he is a no-nonsense coach who is a stickler for detail. I also expect the Packers to concentrate on players in the later rounds of the 2014 NFL draft who will excel on special teams.

The Packers might even look for another return specialist.

Oct 27, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Green Bay Packers cornerback Micah Hyde (33) returns a punt for a touchdown during the second quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field at H.H.H. Metrodome. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TO
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

Micah Hyde did an admirable job returning kicks, especially punts, as he boasted an average of 12.3 yards and had a 93-yard return for a touchdown.

Hyde wasn't as good returning kickoffs, as had an average of 24.1 yards per attempt, which was helped along by a 70-yard return against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 16.

However, the primary focus will be on doing a better job on covering kickoffs and punts.

Everyone seems to dwell on the ranking of the offensive and defensive units for any given team, and those are important gauges of how a team will do in a season.

The special teams units are also a vital part of any squad in the NFL, and the Packers need to get their ranking near the top third in that category.

Coach McCarthy made that very clear with the recent hiring of Zook.


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