Mason Crosby booted the opening kickoff into the end zone for a touchback.
And from there, it was almost all downhill for the Green Bay Packers’ special teams.
After being positive factors in wins over Chicago and Detroit, coordinator Shawn Slocum’s unit played an enormous role in costly losses the last two weeks. One week after allowing two game-turning kick returns by Minnesota’s Percy Harvin, the kicking game posted abysmal performances in practically every area on Sunday at Tampa Bay.
“It bothers me,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “There’s weeks where we have been on the wrong side of a lopsided special teams performance. Last week, it was a 154 yards of field positions to the Vikings and now the big plays time and time again today. So, we definitely need to get that going in the right direction because the momentum swings are really holding us back.”
You name it, and the Packers did it poorly.
Until crumbling in the final 12 minutes of the game, Green Bay played well enough to not only win, but win going away. But two egregious errors allowed Tampa Bay to hang around until rookie quarterback Josh Freeman and the Bucs’ pass rush took control of the game down the stretch.
The first big play came early in the second quarter. The Packers led 14-7 until punting for the first time early in the second quarter. Inexplicably, linebacker Geno Hayes blew right between snapper Brett Goode and the right guard, rookie linebacker Brad Jones. Jones blocked to his right, and Hayes streaked right up the middle. With personal protector John Kuhn lined up to the left and looking to his left, no one stood in Hayes’ way as he stormed in to block Jeremy Kapinos’ punt. Veteran Ronde Barbre recovered and ran 31 yards for the tying touchdown.
It was the first punt blocked against Green Bay since Jon Ryan had two blocked in the infamous Week 16 game at Chicago in 2007.
“That was a missed assignment,” McCarthy said without saying whether Jones blocked the wrong man or Kuhn lined up on the wrong side. Slocum, however, told reporters than Kuhn was in error.
Still, the Packers led 21-17 at halftime and took a 28-17 lead on Aaron Rodgers’ touchdown run early in the fourth. That’s when the Bucs’ Clifton Smith did his best impersonation of Harvin.
Smith is no slouch. A Pro Bowler last year as a rookie, he entered the game ranked fifth in the league among returners with at least 10 attempts with a 27.9-yard average. And when you’re a talented returner who is given a gigantic lane when Spencer Havner and Jarrett Bush are blocked inside and Nick Collins is blocked outside, the result is an 83-yard return to set up a touchdown and trigger at Tampa Bay comeback.
Ronde Barber gets an escort from Roy Miller.
J Meric/Getty Images
“I thought the defense played pretty well today, but we gave them a shot field a couple times, special teams gave them a short field,” Rodgers said. “Mason had a couple real nice touchbacks but you can't expect them to touch it back all the time. We have to make a play and tackle him and get him down. I think we had a chance on the sidelines as well even when he was at the 50. Those are big momentum swings, especially when we had just taken an 11-point lead and felt good about where we were at in the fourth quarter and they kind of got the momentum back and we couldn't get another score to turn the momentum back to us.”
The Packers’ ensuing possession stalled at midfield. A good punt by Kapinos could have pinned the Bucs inside the 10-yard line. Instead, a short punt and a 10-yard return resulted in only a net change of field position of 22 yards. So, instead of being backed up at the 10 or so, Tampa Bay took over at the 28 and drove to the go-ahead touchdown.
Three other plays earn dishonorable mention.
Williams muffed the second-half kickoff. Williams’ initial touch of the ball occurred at the 2-yard line, and while the ball dribbled into the end zone, he could have downed the ball for a touchback because of what’s called the “momentum rule” — meaning the ball’s momentum would have taken the ball into the end zone. Instead, Williams ran the ball out of the end zone and was tackled at the 4-yard line.
Late in the second quarter and punting at the Bucs’ 48-yard line, Kapinos hit a 35-yard punt that was returned for 15 yards. Just like what happened in the fourth quarter, rather than pin the Bucs inside the 10, Kapinos’ punt gave them the ball at the 28.
Brandon Underwood’s holding penalty wiped away a 27-yard punt return by Williams early in the first quarter. Rodgers and the offense overcame it with a 74-yard touchdown pass to James Jones. Nonetheless, in eight games, the Packers’ special teams have been penalized 18 times — including 11 for holding.
In all, Williams averaged 4.5 yards on four punt returns compared to 13.5 yards on four punt returns by Smith. The Packers averaged 16.6 yards on five kickoff returns compared to 53.5 yards on two returns by Smith. And Kapinos’ net average of 27.6 yards on seven punts sent the Packers from 31st to 32nd and last in the league.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.