Sep 13, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Green Bay Packers wide receiver Ty Montgomery (88) returns a kick during the first quarter against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Last season, the biggest weakness of the Green Bay Packers was their atrocious special teams unit.
Those issues weren’t the only reason Green Bay’s season ended sooner than we had hoped, but it was the most glaring spot during that infamous NFC Championship Game collapse.
The errors in that game which helped cause the eventual defeat were just the cherry on top of the dirt-ball sundae for a unit that was ranked dead-last in the league in 2014 by the apparently-prestigious annual special teams report done by the Dallas Morning News.
With how bad things were — and the changes made in the offseason to fix these problems — this is a key area we as fans should be eager to keep track of for gauging how well this year’s squad can do.
Because of that, I decided the best way to accomplish that is to give you all a weekly update on how the Ron Zook-led unit does throughout the season.
We start here in Week 1, and I must say I’m already pleased with the progress.
Aug 29, 2015; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers wide receiver Ty Montgomery (88) runs for extra yards after catching a pass against Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Nolan Carroll II (23) in the first quarter at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Memories of last season had me fearful — and the preseason showing against the Eagles exacerbated those worries — but they might as well have been the peak-Devin Hester Bears units this past weekend with how far above expectations they were.
The starting factor here is our own possible Hester-type in Ty Montgomery. There were not many return opportunities in this game (only four total returns, including zero on punts), but with the few chances he had Montgomery showed off plenty of his much-discussed explosion.
Montgomery merely took his first attempt 41 yards up the field, putting Green Bay at their own 38 to begin their day on offense; unfortunately it was wasted with a quick punt. His second return was even better, this time a 46-yard return to the Packers’ 41; this time it started a touchdown drive. His next attempt was mundane, but the 19-yard return still managed to put Green Bay farther forward than a touchback would have and ended in another TD as Green Bay started to pull away in the 2nd half.
After a year where the main returner (DuJuan Harris) was ranked #31 in terms of average return yardage, this is a huge improvement that has already shown signs of being a possible strength to help a highly-talented offense be able to work with consistently better starting field position. We didn’t get to see him return punts, but all signs point to him succeeding in that spot as well.
The next spot in need of discussion is at punter, where Tim Masthay remains after a disappointing 2014 and a spotty offseason where he apparently did enough to give the coaches confidence to cut his only competition (street free agent Cody Mandell) in early August.
Sep 3, 2015; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers punter Tim Masthay (8) during the game against the New Orleans Saints at Lambeau Field. Green Bay won 38-10. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Masthay will usually not end up with many chances to punt (thanks to the potent Green Bay offense); Sunday only saw him have two attempts. In those two attempts however, he managed to accrue 97 yards; that 48.5 yard average exceeded last year by nearly 5 yards (44.1). One of those punts went 54 yards, and only one return was allowed.
It’s a minuscule sample size, but it does give us a glimpse of what we can hope he’ll continue to provide the rest of the year; if he does, Green Bay’s much-maligned (moreso by public perception that actuality, but not nearly dominant) defense will have some extra assistance in the field position battle on a weekly basis.
The most consistent source of decent special teams production last season is next. Mason Crosby didn’t get too many opportunities to show off his leg, but he made the ones he did get count. His only field goal attempt was good from 37 yards out, but perhaps more importantly he also made all of his 4 extra point kicks. Remember, those are now 33 yard kicks instead of goal-line gimmes; still well within range but not nearly as automatic.
For perspective on that: from 1990-2011, there were a total of 359 XP misses, 103 of which were blocked; 256 were straight up misses. That means the average across that time was 17 total misses (12 non-blocks). The earlier we go, the overall kicking ability is also lower across the league, so kickers have been improving mightily during that time; truly, they are better than ever before. Also in that span, the most a single team ever missed in a year was 5 (1991 Houston Oilers).
Aug 3, 2015; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers punter Tim Masthay (8) and kicker Mason Crosby (2) practice during training camp at Ray Nitschke Field. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Already, we have seen 4 misses in one weekend; prorate that to a 16-game season, that means we could see 64 misses on extra points in 2015. I doubt it’ll be that drastic of an increase in the end, but a conservative estimate of about 50 total missed extra points still puts us at around 32 more misses tallied in a year. Those misses can change the complexion of games entirely, especially in inclement weather.
So far Crosby is showing the new extra point rules shouldn’t affect him all that much. As long as he keeps that up, Green Bay keeps all kinds of game-planning flexibility.
The last area of note is the coverage units. This area is the easiest to overlook, but it is where we have what many call “hidden yardage”; to keep it simple, these are yards that don’t get noticed but massively impact the field-position battle and can give a team just enough to win (or lose) a game when it matters most.
Against the Bears, Green Bay excelled here. On six kickoff opportunities Crosby managed 3 touchbacks, effectively taking out half of Chicago’s chances for a big return play immediately. On the other three, the Bears only managed an average of 21 yards (with a long of 25); since most of those started in the end zone, that means most ended up putting the Bears’ offense inside the 20-yard line to start drives. The punt unit managed decently well too, giving up a single return on two attempts for only 11 yards.
Sep 13, 2015; St. Louis, MO, USA; Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett (16) scores a touchdown against the St. Louis Rams on a punt return during the first half at the Edward Jones Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
In is only one week against a beleaguered rebuilding rival, but the signs are clear regardless: this unit is set to be much-improved in 2015.
Next week against Seattle will bring up some grotesque memories we don’t much care to recall, and the addition of their own new explosive returner (Tyler Lockett) will undoubtedly test the supposed improvements we have seen to this point.
But if this wasn’t just an aberration against a limited Chicago squad, Green Bay should be poised to prove themselves ready for the test.
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