Confidence is building for the Green Bay Packers special teamers after the past two weeks.
In back-to-back games they rendered the Bears' Devin Hester and the Eagles' DeSean Jackson ineffective. Pretty impressive to say the least.
Hester is the NFL's career record holder for combined kick returns touchdown and season record holder for punt return average. Meanwhile, Jackson is the NFC's Pro Bowl return specialist this season.
"We definitely have some cylinders pumping right now, all the cylinders pumping in the special teams phase," said special teams playoff captain Jarrett Bush on Tuesday. "We've got Tim [Masthay] and Mason [Crosby] kicking the ball well. … We just got to keep it rolling, keep the confidence rolling, keep the swagger going, and just go from there. Just build on it."
In the regular season finale, must-win game against the Bears that the Packers needed to qualify for the playoffs, Masthay punted a total of eight times but only allowed Hester to return two of them. Four of his punts landed inside the 20.
Bush was particularly impressive downing two punts inside the Bears' five-yard line on consecutive fourth quarter possessions.
Against the Eagles, Jackson was limited to only one return for 14 yards among Masthay's four total punts.
Head coach Mike McCarthy credits a personnel grouping that's stayed consistent the past couple weeks. After having so many injury problems early in the season, the Packers have stayed fairly healthy lately, which has helped.
"I think it’s a big part of it," said McCarthy. "To line up with just the same punt team three weeks in a row has been huge for us. It’s something we haven’t had all season long. Our consistency is definitely there. We’re really focusing on the fundamentals and the finish."
Bush gave praise to his punter for limiting the dangerous return specialists, which has been pretty impressive considering the Packers ranked tied for 24th in the NFL during the regular season in covering punts.
"Tim putting the ball up high and letting the gunners – me and Pat Lee – run underneath and making the tackles right as he catches the ball or make him fair catch," said Bush. "Other than that, stay in our field lanes and being disciplined, making the tackles."
Crosby has done a pretty good job allowing the kick coverage unit to improve as well. He only kicked four touchbacks all season long – which ranked tied for 26th among all kickers in the NFL – but was able to have one in last week's cold weather. The the coverage unit as a whole ranked 13th in the NFL allowing an average of 21.8 yards per kick return.
Attention now turns to Atlanta's Eric Weems, who poses his own set of problems. In the Packers' Week 13 loss to Atlanta, it was Weems who set up the Falcons' game-winning field goal with nine seconds remaining in the game.
Following Jordy Nelson's touchdown reception with only 1:06 left on the clock, Weems returned the ensuing kickoff 40 yards to their own 36-yard line. A facemask penalty by Matt Wilhelm tacked on 15 yards, which allowed the Falcons to start their drive in Green Bay territory at the 49-yard line. They didn't have very far to go to get into field-goal range.
"Very dynamic just like the rest of them," Bush said of Weems. "Hester, Jackson, great returners, you can put Weems up there with them. Good returner, Pro Bowler. A little bit more aggressive, a little bit more scrappier. But he's a great returner, like I said. We got to go in there, have the same game plan, get the tackles that we need to make, contain him, stay in our field lanes and stay disciplined."
Weems was voted into the Pro Bowl as a special teamer, not a return specialist, although he's still very dangerous on kick returns. Bush described him as one of the top-five kick returners in the NFL. Weems ranked third in the NFL with a 27.5 kick return average on 40 attempts.
McCarthy said the indoor environment will make their task even more challenging.
"This is a different game," said McCarthy. "Anytime you go into a dome game, instead of holding your block in the return game four seconds, you have to hold it five seconds. The punts are longer, the ball is in the air longer, the kickoffs are longer. The time clock definitely increases in the special teams phase, and that’s something that we really need to focus on."
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