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The Zook Files: Counting down the Packers’ biggest special teams blunders of 2018

With five weeks of football left in the Packers’ season, Green Bay has already accumulated an impressive list of special teams miscues.

Green Bay Packers v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

With three more special teams penalties and a laughable fourth quarter fumble by Tramon Williams this past weekend, the Green Bay Packers’ disastrous season of not-so-special special teams continued in Minnesota.

If anything was a surprise about the Packers’ special teams unit on Sunday, it is that their coach Ron Zook remained employed the morning after.

Penalties have been a persistent issue all season for the Packers as a whole, but special teams has played a large role in their struggles with a whopping five penalties coming against Detroit earlier this season alone. Another performance in Minnesota that included an illegal touching, illegal formation, and offsides on a critical onside kick late in the game only added to the disgust.

But penalties are not the only head-scratchers, as miserable moments and decisions have come to define the Packers’ special teams in 2018. Although plays such as Mason Crosby’s game-winning kick against San Francisco and a successful fake punt against Miami have been bright spots, the bad has widely outweighed the good.

In what was a disappointingly tough list to determine, here are Green Bay’s bottom five plays from special teams this season.

Honorable Mention

Robert Tonyan called for a roughing the kicker penalty

The only reason this penalty was not higher on the list is because the Packers’ defense was able to stop Tom Brady and the New England offense immediately after a penalty that granted the Patriots new life.

While some may argue that Tonyan’s penalty should have been of the five-yard variety instead of a personal foul, it remained a crucial, undisciplined mistake in a game that meant so much to Green Bay’s season. Tonyan was too far from blocking the kick to sell out and draw contact with the punter. The penalty could have led to points, but the Packers were fortunate to escape without further damage.

5. Lucas Patrick gets destroyed on a kick return against Miami

Ben Fennell of The Athletic already had raised the question of backup guard Patrick being located on the kick return unit during the New England contest.

Fennell’s last phrase became especially interesting just one week later as the Packers’ use of Patrick almost proved the more negative side of his assertion.

A squibbed kickoff from the Miami Dolphins was fielded by Patrick near the 15-yard line and the big man decided to run. Lowering his head, Patrick was stonewalled by Miami’s Walt Aikens and coughed up the return while injuring himself. Luckily for Green Bay, the fumble was recovered by the Packers and Patrick was able to walk off the field on his own power.

While a medley of special teams blunders nearly derailed Green Bay in this game alone (punt return fumble, penalties, fake punt conversion allowed), this one could have had severe consequences. First, the ball looked to potentially bounce out of bounds if Patrick would have allowed it, providing better field position. Second, Patrick’s role as a guard is invaluable to the Packers in a season in which they have really struggled, especially from the right side. The risk of losing any depth in that area because of special teams is significant. Most importantly, Patrick is not a nimble, secure ballcarrier and has no business returning a kickoff. His fumble could have set the Dolphins up with an incredible scoring opportunity early in the game.

It was certainly a scary play all around.

4. Mason Crosby misses the game-winning field goal against Minnesota

Granted, a 52-yard field goal is not a gimme by any stretch. But Crosby drilled home his first attempt before it was waved off by a Viking timeout. Of course, the second go-around was not as pleasant, as a miss sent the game to overtime.

While Minnesota could not make a field goal either, the Packers would have gotten a big early-season lift with a win versus settling for the tie. The Packers’ failure to close the game, regardless of the controversial Clay Matthews penalty, began a rocky stretch of weeks before the bye. Would things have turned out differently this season had Crosby made the field goal? Maybe not. But a part of me wonders.

3. Tramon Williams misjudges a punt against the Vikings

If any one special teams mistake was a microcosm of the Packers’ yearlong special teams struggles, it was Tramon Williams’ fumble on Sunday night in Minnesota.

After losing a poorly-timed fumble on a punt return against Miami only a couple of weeks earlier which stunted Green Bay’s early momentum, Williams once again turned the ball over at a time the Packers could not afford. This time, it was late in the fourth quarter with the team down two scores.

It is one thing for a returner to muff a fair catch. It is entirely another to misjudge a ball by standing a yard away, not attempt to catch said ball, and then stand directly in the ball’s path as it hits the ground. The ball grazed Williams, surrounded by a pack of purple defenders, and was quickly recovered by the Vikings. In a game already trending against Green Bay, another horrendous special teams error eliminated the faint glimmer of comeback hope left.

2. Special Teams costs the Packers the game in Detroit

The road defeat at the hands of the Lions just could not be narrowed down to one player and play. However, one of the more mental aspects of the game of football is kicking and when a specialist’s confidence fades, bad things happen.

Crosby’s second appearance on this list was disastrous. In what he himself termed “an anomaly in life,” Crosby became the first kicker to miss four field goals and an extra point in a game since the Raiders’ Cole Ford in 1997. In a 31-23 loss to Detroit, Crosby’s blemishes were the difference between winning and losing from a points standpoint.

Crosby was not alone in the special teams collapse. A possible referee error on a muffed punt that was ruled to have touched the gunner Kevin King gave the Lions the ball at the one-yard line, resulting in the game’s first touchdown. Further, a medley of penalties, detailed in this excerpt from my article earlier this season, destroyed Green Bay’s chances at winning.

On Sunday, a staggering five penalties came from special teams. While Mason Crosby’s field goal woes provided the storyline on a gloomy day, the errors masked Green Bay’s slew of return penalties that ruined the field position battle and wiped out a long kickoff return from Ty Montgomery. Later, a roughing the kicker penalty from Kevin King on an extra point attempt played a pivotal role in a horrendous ensuing kickoff that saw the Packers start the drive from within their own 15-yard line. Putting the icing on the cake was an offsides penalty on the onside kick attempt in the closing seconds.

1. Ty Montgomery costs the Packers’ offense a final drive in Los Angeles

This one had consequences galore and takes the crown for the season (at least so far).

A seesaw game with the Rams saw LA take a 29-27 lead on a touchdown with 2:05 to play. With just one timeout remaining, it was logical for the Packers to take a knee on the ensuing kickoff and preserve an extra time stoppage for Aaron Rodgers and company with the two-minute warning approaching. Turns out, Green Bay’s offense wouldn’t touch the ball at all.

Whether Ty Montgomery defied the coaching staff or not is something fans may never know. But his decision to return a kick two yards deep in the end zone was not a smart football play, nor did it lead to a promising result. Montgomery fumbled the ball after only making it to around the 21-yard line and the Rams recovered with under two minutes remaining. The final nail was in the coffin as the Packers’ defense could only stop the clock one more time.

In a difficult post-bye stretch, Green Bay not only lost a game they probably should have won against the NFC’s top team, but had to travel across the country to New England the following week with a 3-3-1 record. Montgomery’s insubordination, at least on the surface level, was too much for the Packers to move forward with, shipping him off to the Ravens within days. The national media scrutiny had seemingly never been as critical toward Green Bay in the past decade as it was that week, and the Packers haven’t been the same since with a 1-3 record.