After the Green Bay Packers’ special teams collapse in the postseason last year, I’m sure you’ve heard plenty about special teams this offseason. Maybe too much. Either way, new special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia hopes to change the culture around the team’s protection units, which allowed a blocked field goal and a blocked punt against the San Francisco 49ers in a 13-10 Packers loss in the biggest moment of their 2021 season.
Since then, everyone is talking about special teams. Head coach Matt LaFleur has consistently mentioned players are key special teams contributors in his press conferences. General manager Brian Gutekunst stated this week that the team rostered full-time special teams players for the first time in his tenure with the team. Who are those players and what do they do on the field, though?
With the protection woes against San Francisco in mind, let’s take a look at what the Packers’ protection units looked like in the preseason, who plays where and who might be on the field in those positions in the regular season.
Field goal/PAT protection
Here’s how we’re going to talk about the field goal and point after touchdown protection:
- The players outside of the long snapper are the guards.
- The players outside of the guards are the tackles.
- The players outside of the tackles are the ends.
- The players outside of the ends are the wings.
This preseason, the Packers used almost exclusively offensive linemen at the guard, tackle and end positions. Out of their ten field goal and PAT attempts, three of them featured offensive linemen at every single one of those positions while the other seven featured offensive linemen at five of the six positions. The exception was defensive lineman TJ Slaton, who was a highly-touted offensive line prospect coming out of high school. Slaton played tackle on the field goal team, a position he also played last season for the Packers.
The big question on the field goal team is if defensive lineman Dean Lowry will contribute this season. Last year, Lowry played end for the team but was held out of the 2022 preseason — as were most of the returning starters.
On the wings, the Packers opened up every preseason game with an offensive lineman playing the left wing position, the same spot where defensive lineman Tyler Lancaster allowed pressure from on San Francisco’s field goal block in the playoffs. After the first field goal/PAT attempt of the game, that left wing spot was later replaced by a tight end, either Josiah Deguara or the now-released Alize Mack. At the right wing, tight end Tyler Davis took all ten snaps at the position in the preseason, flashing some of the special teams upside that the coaching staff consistently brings up when asked about Davis.
If you watch the San Francisco block from last postseason, the 49ers overloaded six players on four men in protection, putting the Packers’ wing — Lancaster — in a position where he was asked to slow down two players at once. San Francisco gave Green Bay that same look in the preseason, this time on Davis’ side of the protection.
Talk about laying your body out on the line. It’s not pretty, but the best you can ask for a two-on-one is to live another down.
One offensive lineman who might not have much of an impact on the field goal protection team is Zach Tom, who is an undersized but skilled pass-blocker. Below is a clip from his first snap in field goal protection in the preseason, where he played right guard. His second snap on field goal/PAT team this preseason was the clip above that featured Davis. Tom’s response to being walked back on Snap 1 was to adjust with a quick cut block, unlike the step-down technique we see most commonly in the league.
Depending on if the Packers play a tight end or offensive lineman at left wing and/or if Lowry contributes on field goal/PAT team this year, the field goal protection unit should feature anywhere from four to six offensive linemen. These linemen will likely be the lowest options on the depth chart available for gameday, excluding Tom and Jake Hanson — who also struggles with holding his anchor. Let’s say that rookie Rasheed Walker, largely regarded as the team’s tenth option on the offensive line, is a healthy scratch on the gameday 46-man roster. If so, those four jobs would likely go to Yosh Nijman, Sean Rhyan, Royce Newman and Jon Runyan, assuming that the team actively works around Tom and Hanson. From there on, every Davis, Deguara, Lowry or Slaton that goes down inches toward liabilities (Tom and Hanson) or key starters (David Bakhtiari, Elgton Jenkins and Josh Myers) being thrown out on field goal protection.
The photo above is the end zone angle of the Packers’ starting punt unit against the New Orleans Saints in Week 2. Like with the punt unit, the same players will be named the guards, tackles and wings. The only difference is that instead of a ends, a holder and a kicker, the punt team has gunners, a personal protector and a punter.
In total, the team punted 12 times in the preseason, with 31 of their guard and tackle snaps going to inside linebackers and 17 of those snaps going to outside linebackers. They didn’t use every available outside linebacker to their disposal, though, as the players who had better movement skills, Tipa Galeai, Kobe Jones and La’Darius Hamilton, got those reps over the likes of Jonathan Garvin and Kingsley Enagbare, who made the team.
Galeai started twice as the punt team’s left tackle, while Jones and Hamilton recorded eight and seven reps, respectively, at tackle. Quay Walker, the team’s first-round pick, also got the start at right tackle. Both Galeai and Walker are expected to play these roles when healthy in the regular season. Guard was a position that the backup inside linebackers typically played, as shown above with Isaiah McDuffie and Krys Barnes at left and right guard. They are also expected to handle those roles in the regular season.
The big question on punt protection is how the team will handle injuries. The only players who got reps on punt protection this preseason and also made the squad are the expected starters, meaning that they’re just one injury away from getting someone their live first action at the position in 2022 as a mid-game adjustment. The Packers only carrying four inside linebackers compounded with rostering two outside linebackers (Garvin and Enagbare) who haven’t played on punt team makes them very thin at that position. For example, if Walker went down...maybe De’Vondre Campbell has to step up and replace his snaps on the unit?
Four players saw snaps on the wing this preseason, with three of them being tight ends: Davis, Mack and Deguara. The one exception is Patrick Taylor, who was a contributor on kickoff, kick return, punt block and punt team. Taylor’s large frame (6’1”, 217 pounds) for a running back helps him in that aspect. As a practice squad player on a team that only carries two running backs on their 53-man roster, don’t be surprised if the Packers call Taylor up from the practice squad for Week 1 and Week 2, as the team can elevate a player for two games before having to sign him off of the practice squad to see game action.
The personal protector role has mostly been filled by safeties Dallin Leavitt and Micah Abernathy, who just signed with the team’s practice squad on Friday. Leavitt was the Week 1 starter at the position before he went down with a shoulder injury that caused him to miss the remainder of the preseason. He was then replaced by running back Tyler Goodson, the third player who saw snaps at the position. Last year, this was a role that third safety Henry Black often played. With five safeties on the roster and the likelihood of Taylor taking on a more expanded special teams role as a call-up player off of the practice squad, don’t expect Goodson to get an activation nod until at least Week 3, barring an injury at the running back or safety positions. Abernathy also showed his versatility on punt team, as he was not only able to contribute as a personal protector but actually saw a snap as a punt gunner as well.
For those curious, the three most-played gunners in the preseason did not make the team: cornerbacks Kiondre Thomas, Rico Gafford and Kabion Ento. Ento was never signed to the practice squad, Gafford was just released from the practice squad and Thomas is currently on the practice squad. Those three players made up 12 of the team’s 24 gunner snaps this preseason, while eight others split the remaining 12 snaps. Each of cornerback Shemar Jean-Charles, safety Tariq Carpenter, cornerback Keisean Nixon and receiver Samori Toure got two opportunities to run down punts this preseason. This could be a key reason why the team signed Rudy Ford, a known punt-gunning ace, as their lone addition to the 53-man roster following cutdowns. In total, secondary players out-snapped receivers 20-to-4 at gunner this summer. This is also a position that Bisaccia has had starting cornerback Eric Stokes and starting nickelback Rasul Douglas practice at.