Packers vs. Bears: Special Teams Review & Analysis

Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

The special teams for the Packers have been a consistent force throughout much of 2012, but with Mason Crosby falling apart and questionable trick plays being called is this consistency coming to an end?

It’s rare for there to be enough to controversy with the special teams in order for these units to get their own review. Usually a small paragraph at the end of the offensive or defensive review is enough to capture what happened in this portion of the game and then move on.

This week is different. This week we need to pause and take a good long look at the special teams…and for any good reason. Such is the life of a special teams specialist, to be virtually invisible until they are noticed and then suddenly the special teams are a big problem. They are the Weeping Angels of a football team.

The Packers special teams unit has been a model of consistency this year. While the offense and defense have taken turns struggling, the special teams units just kept humming along. Now the only part of this unit that can really say that is the punting units. The return game is struggling and the field goal unit is just plain awful.

As we break down what happened on Sunday there are going to be two large questions that surface which may change the face of how these special teams perform in the playoffs….

1. How aggressive is too aggressive? Or as I think of it right now, the play call versus execution debate.

2. What needs to be done with Mason Crosby?

Other than these two points everything is generally fine with the special teams. The problem is that each of these issues alone could turn a sure win to a loss in a heartbeat and together they could be disastrous to the Packers in the postseason.

Special Teams Review: Field Goal Kicking:

Mason Crosby – 0/2

Do I need to write more than terrible stat above? The last couple weeks I have been cautiously optimistic that Crosby was through his slump. Yeah that’s gone now. It’s going to take some serious field goal kicking for him to win back the confidence of the fan base now….if he can do it at all.

The problem isn’t in the recognition of a problem on the part of the Packers, but rather the response. Every sign right now points to McCarthy sticking with Crosby. So don’t expect try outs, don’t expect FA’s, don’t expect a change. McCarthy is going to stand by his man and keep Crosby around. The problem with this solution is that then the Packers really have to stick by Crosby. This means keep sending him out there to kick field goals and hope he turns it around. That’s the only way to work through a slump like this. If that’s the case then my advice is buckle up, pray hard, and for God sakes put your beer labels out.

The other solution is to cut Crosby and sign someone else now. Like right now, because waiting to cut him in March is going to be too late. By then the damage will be done with a playoff loss or the Packers will have won the Super Bowl with the guy which is not an easy time to cut a guy for incompetence.

Special Teams Review: The Return Game:

Randall Cobb – 2 KR 37 YDS 18.5 AVG 26 LG 3 PR -2 -0.7 AVG 5 LG

The problem with having playmakers in the return game is that they always think they can take it to the house. You know why they think this? Because they can always take one to the house. The problem is that sometimes in trying to make something happen they go backwards or make poor choices. The player gets too aggressive and a stupid football decision is made. It’s a double edged sword and this week the Packers caught the wrong end of that sword. Cobb had a poor day with a negative total and average for punt returns and an average of under twenty yards on kick returns –considering that most, if not all, of his kick returns were coming out of the endzone this average is not good enough.

The thing is though that weeks like this are a small price to pay for having a guy who is able to make something happen in the return game. That said, it may be getting time to retire Cobb from the return game and let him focus on being an offensive weapon. Returners have a short life span and rarely are they effective once integrated into the offense. Spending another mid to low round pick on a WR/KR may not be a bad plan should the value arise in the 2013 draft.

Then there is the lateral play. It was probably the wrong call to make looking back Aaron Rodgers didn’t like the call. Mike McCarthy admitted it was probably the wrong call too. But is there ever a right time for a trick play? Not really and that’s the point of the trick play…especially on special teams. If there was a “right time” to call a trick play it would probably be expected….limiting its effectiveness.

Ultimately this sort of play call comes down to how aggressive a coach wants to be with the particular unit. Is there something there to exploit that the other side is giving you? Can you catch them flat footed and score easy points? Can you look smarter than the other guy? This isn’t the first aggressive call we’ve seen out of the special teams unit this year, it’s the second one to fail, and it is probably the most horrible failure on the part of the special teams this season. So it’s understandable that fans are up in arms about the decision to run a risky lateral on a punt return. The fans are right to wonder what the heck happened there. It was a perfect storm of questionable playcalling and poor execution, but make no mistake…the only reason why people are so angry about this is because of the execution even though you only hear about the play call.

Let’s take a step back and digest what I mean by looking at a universally lauded trick play from earlier this year. In Week 2 the Packers called an unbelievable trick play that worked and secured victory for the Packers. Once again the game was close, the Packers were only up by three and struggling on offense, but McCarthy was aggressive and sent the play call in. It was a fake field goal on 4th and 26. The thing is though the ball was on the 27, so the play could almost be considered fourth and goal. Now this play call involved a short pass to Tom Crabtree and then him running it 30 yards to a score. The play call required a small pitch to Tom Crabtree and then he would need to run to pick up the first down (or really the touchdown). There is a very good argument to be had that any play call requiring Crabtree to outrun a host of defenders for 30 yards is not a good call…..but it worked so McCarthy is a genius and people are happy. Puddings for everyone.

Here we have a similar game situation but different special teams unit. Once again there is an aggressive trick play called in order to gain an advantage. Once again the call is questionable, trusting fifth or sixth string rookie WR (Jeremy Ross) with little to no game experience to make a catch and then make a play. This time the execution is not there. Ross drops the lateral which is delivered perfectly by Cobb and then Ross follows this up by failing to fight for the football. Bears recover and have new life.

Is this call that much stupider than Crabtree’s fake? Probably not. When the Packers attempted Crabtree’s fake they only had a three point lead and the offense had struggled to get into scoring range the entire game. When this lateral was called the Packers had a bigger lead and the offense was rolling….the Packers could have reasonably overcome failure better in this situation than it could if Crabtree’s fake failed. The main difference between these two plays is execution. Crabtree and his blockers executed the play, Ross did not.

So as I look at this play and look for a scapegoat I don’t find McCarthy. Why? Because I lauded McCarthy for making an even more questionable play call that worked earlier in the year. I would be a hypocrite if I turned around now and threw him under the bus for a similar play call that did not work mostly because of an execution issue. Or put another way, if Ross catches that ball I guarantee you I don’t spend six paragraphs of this review on the subject. If that happened there would be a couple sentences talking about how it was surprising, risky, but could have gone worse. The reason why this is such a hot topic now has nothing to do with the call, but it does have everything to do with what Ross did and did not do…..as much as we are loathe to admit it.

Special Teams Review: Punt Coverage Units

Key Performances

Tim Masthay – 5 Punts 208 YDS 41.6 AVG 1 Inside 20 51 LG

Devin Hester – 3 PR 42 YDS 14 AVG 24 LG

Devin Hester is not as good as he once was, but he is still one of the better punt returners in the league. Overall he was held in check for the game thanks to efforts of Masthay. Hester did get one larger return though of 24 yards so it was not a perfect day in the office for the Ginger Wolverine & Co.

Special Teams Review: Kick Coverage Units

Key Performance

Devin Hester – 2 KR 63 YDS 31.5 AVG 40 LG

Like the punting units, the kick cover units were generally acceptable on Sunday. However they did allow one big kick return from Hester for 40 yards. Not good enough, but not overly concerning for the big picture either.

Conclusion:

Most of this year the special teams have been very good….outside of Mason Crosby. This past week there were some problems that surfaced among these units. Cobb has not been as effective a returner as earlier in the year, the punt and kick units not as efficient as normal, and Crosby inaccuracies have become almost comically bad. It’s not time to panic yet, but something does need to be done here. Crosby needs to straighten out and the Packers need to be extra sure who they are relying on when attempting a risky and aggressive play like the lateral on the punt return.

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