Special teams vital to Packers' success

It’s that other, other side of the ball. The one that, although only on the field for a small fraction of the game, can totally change the direction and pace of a game. Special teams is an area where the Packers have struggled for the last several years. They have finished the last three years ranked lower than 20th in most kickoff and punt categories.

If the Packers are to make the playoffs and have success if they get there, they need to improve their special teams play. If they don’t, their battle will be one fought uphill.

One blaring example of the Packers’ special teams costing them a game would be the Atlanta game a month ago. With a minute left the Packers kicked off to the Falcons. Eric Weems had so much confidence against the Packers’ coverage team; he took the ball out from four-yards deep and went 40 yards before being face-masked by journeyman Matt Wilhelm. If Wilhelm hadn’t grabbed Weems’ mask, Weems would have gone the distance.

So as not to put the blame on Wilhelm, many different things and people have contributed to the team’s shortcomings in these areas.

The one that immediately stands out is Jarrett Bush. Why the team matched the Titans offer to Bush on a three-year deal will forever escape me. The guy has been unable to find a spot on defense at cornerback or safety. Whenever there is a penalty or a fight on the field, he’s right there in the middle of it. You would think a lifetime special teamer would get the hang of it eventually, but he is the face of the poor performances we’ve seen on kickoff coverage the last three years.

This year, head coach Mike McCarthy made a good point that with the team’s injury issues, the side of the ball that has suffered the most has been special teams. With many holes to fill on offense and defense, they have had to pull players who might be focusing solely on special teams to fill in the gaps elsewhere.

Looking across the field for this upcoming game, the Bears have a dynamic return game that most teams should be scared and jealous of. They rank third in the NFL in kickoff return average and lead the league in punt return average. Devin Hester and Danieal Manning form a ferocious duo, consistently giving the Bears’ offense good field position. The same cannot be said for the Packers.

The word to describe Packers punt return man Tramon Williams would be safe. I appreciate his being mindful of ball security, but 19 fair catches in 36 attempts and a 7.7 yard average compared to Hester’s 9 in 31 with a 17.1 average shows an unwillingness to take the ball and see what could happen. I can see why he might be asked to though, since as a starting cornerback he is on the cusp of stardom, recently being snubbed from the Pro Bowl, but that’s another thing. The Packers need to put someone else back there that can take the ball and run with it.

Sam Shields has taken over on kickoffs, and seems to think it is easier to run sideline to sideline than north and south. Hey, it is a shorter distance, but the outcome doesn’t really help. Maybe they’re running sideline plays on returns, but it isn’t working, as Shields currently ranks 29th in the league in return average.

The Packers know what is at stake this weekend. Nobody needs to remind them of the playoff implications. If they respect the Bears and their special teams by avoiding kicking the ball to Hester, they will do themselves a huge favor. Hester returned a punt for a touchdown against the Packers in the two teams’ first meeting this season. If the Packers want the win this weekend, they could help themselves by winning the special teams battle.