The Coverage Units
- 11 yard return (ATL 33) *ATL Penalty* (ATL 22)
- 18 yard return (ATL 33)
- 21 yard return (ATL 29)
- Touchback; *GB Penalty* (ATL 30)
Speaking of penalties, this unit also has had their fair share of gaffes this year, handing free yardage to their opposition. In this game, there was only one such instance, but it was still a dumb mistake worth noting.
That mistake was Kentrell Brice somehow managing to go offsides on the third kickoff. The amount of yardage was small (5 yards), but this was free yardage given to a team who didn’t require any help with that (seeing as the Falcons put up 367 yards of offense) which was facing an injury-depleted defense in need of any small bit of assistance it could find. That penalty was at the start of one of Atlanta’s six scoring drives, and while I don’t necessarily think the 5 yards would have changed much there, it still could have and that’s reason enough to call them out on it. Quite simply, just don’t outrun your kicker and you won’t hand out free yardage.
Past that kickoff, there was only one kick which didn’t end as a touchback: the second one. This one was designed to go short, so it is up to the coverage guys to get down there and make a quick tackle. If that was the plan (and based on Crosby’s leg strength, having a kick barely get inside the Atlanta 10 makes that seem pretty likely), the the return guys would know beforehand he was going to pop it short and they would need to make haste on stopping it. They didn’t successfully do so, letting the returner almost reach the Atlanta 30 before finally bringing him down.
As for the punt return coverage, I’m willing to give them a bit more leeway. As I delved into with Schum, he’s a kicker who at best almost certainly is giving you one of two things: a short kick that should give the returners time to close in on the returner before he even has the ball, or a long one which makes him start from further back but will most likely give him the space to try picking up some yardage. This game had only the latter in store, but as I mentioned with the short Crosby kick, if would be strange if there wasn’t some level of communication to let his guys know he was going for distance over placement; with that in mind, they should be able to get themselves in the mindset of being ready to blaze down towards the returner with the expectation of needing to tackle him rather than simply get close enough to force a fair catch.
On the two punts which didn’t end as touchbacks, the guys in this unit could not stop the returner quickly, giving up double-digit yardage each time. Again, I put part of that on Schum’s kick (there’s only so much ground guys can cover in a short amount of time, especially considering he did not have great hangtime along with the fact that they must fight through blocks to get there in the first place), but if the plan is going to be weighted towards distance over placement, the coverage players must find a way to break through the opposing blockers on the outside and contain the return threat faster than we saw and take him down immediately. They got lucky with the first punt — where Atlanta committed a penalty to negate the double-digit gain — but the second one almost gained two first downs’ worth of yardage to start Atlanta beyond their own 30. The defense actually bailed them out with back-to-back sacks — their only two of the game — to force a punt, but more often than not when a team in a rhythm like the one the Falcons displayed all game will use any little advantage with aplomb.
Overall it is mostly quibbles over little things with this whole unit right now — none of which ended up hurting Green Bay when it came down to it — but the odds are against seeing that happen for an extended period of time.
A little mistake in communication here or a gift of yardage there in most games can have a significant effect (though one mostly lost to the deep analysis beyond simple box scores) on the outcome of a contest.
These guys are doing alright as a whole and have come a long way from their terrible 2014 season in the past two years, but there is still much room for improvement. Even with a jump back to respectability, they are still outside the top half of the league’s units by most metrics (Football Outsiders had them at #19 going into this week’s slate of games).
Green Bay won’t turn into the Eagles’ superb unit overnight (nor should the Packers necessarily need them to), but continued improvement — especially when it comes to eliminating negative plays and penalties — can help them rise further up the list and continue their ascent into being the type of group which takes nothing away from their offense and defense while tossing in some extra gains on occasion.
For a third unit which rarely gets discussion outside of mistakes in today’s game, that’s all a team should really need from their special teams.