Packers still have a ways to go on returns : Packers Insider

Packers still have a ways to go on returns

December 2, 2010 by  
Filed under News

Dec 1, 2010 ~ by Lori Nickel, Journal-Sentinel

~Green Bay — Field position is the category by which special teams is ultimately judged.

And it is the job of the return game to set up the offense.

If Green Bay’s returners give Aaron Rodgers & Co. the ball at the 35-yard line or better, the Packers are two times more likely to score than if the offense starts inside its own 20.

Special teams coach Shawn Slocum's unit has helped lose two games this season, but admittedly has been hit with a lot of injuries.

“It’s huge. It is really the most important thing to do with special teams,” said Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum. “Fortunately we have not been tackled inside the 20 very often this year. That hurt us Sunday.”

Green Bay out-gained Atlanta in total yards and first downs, but Green Bay lost to the Falcons in part because it lost the field-position battle.

On the road in a tight game – against one of the best teams in the NFC – with a playoff feel, Green Bay could have used a break here or there in field position.

Here’s what the Packers got instead:

Five starts inside their own 15, once backed up all the way to the 7. The best starting point they had was the 32.

Green Bay’s offense is so good that even with the terrible field position, the Packers managed to score on two of those five drives that had them pinned back to Stone Mountain, Ga.

Once the Packers cut oft-injured Will Blackmon in the final roster reduction (Blackmon is with the New York Giants but now has a chest injury) and put their only draft pick with return potential, James Starks, on the physically unable to perform list, they were left with few options in the return game.

Adding to his duties

Before this year Tramon Williams had been a solid punt returner in spot duty in the past with 19 returns, a 13.3 average and no fumbles.

But even though he has become the full-time starting cornerback and has played as well as, if not better, than Charles Woodson, his return obligations have increased. He has been Green Bay’s only punt returner, averaging 7.2 yards per punt return on 25 attempts this season.

“The numbers might not be there, but as far as field position, I have been making good decisions,” said Williams.

Williams also has 14 fair catches. His strength is his decision-making. He will field bad punts, high but short, and give the Packers their best spot, rather than letting a punt go and roll back.

It is a risk for both the Packers and to Williams to put the bull’s-eye on his chest as a punt returner, but the coaches respect him for playing hard anyway.

“He’s been very aggressive returning the ball,” said Slocum. “I’ve been really pleased with Tramon’s dependability and decision-making.”

The Packers are ranked 27th in kickoff-return average at 20.5 with 43 attempts this year.

Green Bay mainly has relied on three players as kickoff returners: Receiver Jordy Nelson (22 returns, 22.5 average); cornerback Pat Lee (11, 19.8); and newcomer Sam Shields, also a cornerback.

Shields gets chance

The rookie Shields, who was a gunner for three years on the University of Miami’s special teams unit, was switched to returner in Green Bay and had a fumbling issue in one preseason game.

But coaches said he has worked hard at his return game.

He has six returns for a 26.3 yard average. At Atlanta, Shields’ speed came through on one of the returns and he averaged 21.8 yards overall on four returns.

But although he was told to be aggressive with the returns, his coordinator said Shields misjudged how to play one of them.

Maybe Shields was inspired by his kickoff return to start the second half when he caught the football 5 yards deep in the end zone and ran it out 37 yards.

On Shields’ third return, he fielded the ball again in the end zone. He should have taken a knee and put the Packers on the 20, but he ran and got to the 13, where he was pushed out of bounds. On the play, he tried to stiff-arm Atlanta cornerback Brett Grimes and instead shoved his facemask, drawing a penalty for unnecessary roughness. That backed the Packers up to their 7.

From there, Green Bay’s drive fizzled 52 yards later with a failed fourth-down attempt at a critical fourth-quarter moment with the Packers trailing the Falcons, 17-10.

Slocum said he wanted Shields to take the knee on the second return. When asked if that might be confusing to Shields – who was told to be aggressive on his returns against Atlanta, but then to hold up on one – Slocum explained.

“When you get a ball that is that wide in the end zone, normally your spacing is not going to be good,” said Slocum. “Particularly when you’re trying to run he ball across to the other side of the field.

“Traditionally a ball that is more than 3 yards deep in the end zone, you take a knee and put it on the 20. With Sam’s speed here in the last couple of games, we’ve been very aggressive with our approach at bringing the ball out. I thought that he should have left one of those in, the one where he tried to go across the field.

“Now if the blocking had been better . . . we need to block where the runner runs. It’s not just on the returner.”

Slocum said if he thinks it is necessary, he’ll reconsider the aggressive approach.

“The first thing I can do is tell him, don’t bring the ball out if it’s kicked in the end zone,” said Slocum. “I can solve that; that’s not an issue. Sam is very diligent in his work and smart. And I think he makes good decisions.”

Starks could be option

In their 2010 draft class, the Packers had only one potential returner – Starks.

“He could be a kickoff returner,” general manager Ted Thompson said at the time. “He’s a very good pass catcher and a good runner. Sort of a one-cut guy. No-nonsense type running back.”

But Starks has not played a football game in two years – he had a shoulder injury his senior year at Buffalo and a nagging hamstring injury that has kept him from seeing his first NFL action.

Slocum plans to keep Nelson and Shields as his main kick returners. Lee has an injured ankle. But with third running back Dimitri Nance recovering from a concussion, the coaches may debate whether to make Starks active this week.

“If we can get James up, I’m sure he’ll be a factor there, too. He’s a pretty good runner with the ball,” said Slocum. “He’s been running our show team kickoff returns since he’s been back and he’s done a good job with it.”

Help Us! Comment about this Packer Article

This is a community of fanatical Packer fans. Please tell us what you think about this post....