Without Will Blackmon, coach Mike McCarthy will still have a dynamic kick returner on the field at Philadelphia on Sunday.
And that decision will come with a risk.
McCarthy said Jordy Nelson and Brandon Jackson are the options at kick returner. No surprise there, with Jackson’s return for a touchdown on Family Night and Nelson’s 11th-ranked NFL average last season. The options at punt returner, however, came as a surprise.
“I feel good about Tramon Williams and Greg Jennings in the punt return if that is the direction we go,” McCarthy said. “We’re going to compete on special teams and we’re going to give our football team the opportunity to play with good field position. All of the work that we have done in the offseason, in training camp, it’s about putting the returner in a position to be successful. We’ll make sure we have the best guy back there with the football.”
Jennings, who averaged 8.6 yards per punt return as a senior at Western Michigan but has not fielded a punt in the NFL, showed impressive open-field skills by eluding a couple of reporters following Monday’s practice.
No matter, because Williams sounds like he’s going to be the main man.
“At this point, I don’t think no one else is coming in here, so I’ll most likely be back there,” Williams said with a smile. “It’s not a problem. I’m ready for it. It’s something that I’ve done in the past.”
Williams is a proven commodity on returns. In 2007, when he came out of nowhere to win a roster spot and eventually become the third corner, he averaged 22.8 yards on 30 kickoff returns and 19.7 yards on six punt returns — a figure skewed with his 95-yard touchdown on a “trick” pooch punt against Carolina. Last year, he averaged 10.4 yards on 13 punt returns but was removed from the job when he replaced the injured Al Harris as a starting cornerback.
Defensively, nothing has changed, with Williams remaining a starter for the injured Harris. However, McCarthy’s thinking obviously has changed. Without Blackmon, the Packers simply don’t have a punt returner, which outweighs the potentially catastrophic situation at cornerback should Williams go down.
“You factor all that in. I think that’s common knowledge,” McCarthy said of the injury potential. “I also have a history that I can look back on, on how I’ve approached the game as far as special teams, who’s the returner, who’s not, from ’06, ’07, ’08 and ’09. I think some of the decisions I made in ’07 (when Charles Woodson returned punts and Williams kickoffs) were probably the most aggressive decisions from a personnel standpoint, and that was the healthiest team I’ve coached. Does that play hand in hand? Who has the answers to those questions? But we’re going to line up, and we’re going to line up to win football games, and I’m talking about all three phases. So, we’re going to have the best returner possible back there.”
Williams is excited to handle the extra challenge, with Jennings likely factoring in if Williams is gassed from a long drive or a long pass. He scoffed at taking a play-it-safe approach.
“You just play, man,” he said. “I’ve never been the type of guy who takes a conservative way out. In my book, that’s the way people get hurt, trying to be safe. Just go out there and just play. I’m a punt returner, also. I’ve done it. “
Nelson is the top option to return kickoffs. In replacing Blackmon, his 25.4-yard average on kickoffs ranked 11th in the NFL and consistently gave the Packers the ball outside the 30-yard line. His fumble in the playoff game, however, led to his benching. He averaged 29.7 yards on three kickoff returns in the preseason.
“The guys that are here know what we need to do,” he said. “Preseason, they were rotating a lot of guys through, giving guys opportunities to make the team. Some made it, some didn’t, now we’re ready to move forward with the guys we’ve got. It’s on us. There’s no one else to do it. It’s on us to get it done. It’s going to be a big part of this season. Whether we go a long ways or not is going to depend on special teams.”
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.