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Packers making bigger commitment to special teams

By Tyler Dunne, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –

GREEN BAY, Wis. — His voice booms through the speakers on the sideline. It’s raspy, punctuated. And between nearly every play, Green Bay Packers special teams coach Shawn Slocum lowers the microphone on his headset and talks to players individually.

These segments of practice in Green Bay tend to be long, tiresome. But players like Alex Green who’d rather be helping the team elsewhere realize they can’t pull up.

“You can’t coast here,” the running back Green said. “We have guys who actually want to be out there. We don’t have many coasters.”

That’s not always the case. But in their fourth year under Slocum, the Packers’ special teams may be as strong as they’ve been since the mid-90s. Through the first quarter of this season, specials teams play has essentially sorted out the NFC North. Two trick plays invigorated Green Bay in wins over Chicago and New Orleans, and the team neutralized Devin Hester and Darren Sproles.

Meanwhile, in Detroit, the coverage units have been disastrous. The Lions became the first team to give up kick and punt return touchdowns in back-to-back weeks.

This has taken time, Slocum admits. Players needed to buy in.

“I think we’ve gotten it to the point now where we have a good group,” Slocum said. “It could go good or it could go bad because large spaces of field are involved and excellent players can make guys miss and make plays, things of that nature. Guys are tuned in. We’re focused. Our challenge is to maintain a high level of productivity.”

Each summer, coach Mike McCarthy emphasizes and re-emphasizes — with headache-inducing repetition — that special teams play is a player’s ticket to the 53-man roster. For sustained success, the daily stump speech is needed.

Players don’t enter the league to be a gunner on the punt team. Yet in these “large spaces of field,” the opportunity at dynamic plays increases.

So the Packers try to follow a basic rule of thumb.

“If we can eliminate that from having any negative effect on our team, on our games, we can let our offense and defense go to work,” kicker Mason Crosby said. “It’s not always glory. We’re not going to get all the glory all the time. But if we do our job and we’re working week in and week out and no one is talking about us too much, then we’re doing our job.”

That has been the case so far. Crosby hasn’t missed a kick. Punter Tim Masthay is tied for the league lead with 11 punts pinned inside the 20. Randall Cobb ranks sixth in punt-return average (15.4). And maybe most importantly, no opposing returner has been a factor.

Not surprisingly, McCarthy praised Green Bay’s special teams earlier this week as the most impressive unit to date.

Keeping the interest level high is an “education process,” Slocum says. Many players don’t realize how much one punt, one kick, one blown assignment can change a game. So he uses statistics to make his case, pointing out that teams that have forced a turnover on special teams are 8-1 this season.

“Just taking that data, those statistics, and showing players how important it is,” Slocum said, “(you’re) having good guys that buy into it and realize, ‘I have a chance to affect the game if we make a good play on special teams.’ “

It takes a certain type of coach to motivate such mundane work. Fiery special teams coaches are par for the course. You can’t miss them. They’re the ones typically caught on camera losing their headset (and their minds).

Players say Slocum is a high-energy coach though add that his message carries more substance than bluster.

“He’s a no-nonsense guy,” Masthay said. “He calls it like he sees it with every one of us. And it’s just designed to be constructive to help each other. He’s not going to sugarcoat something and say you did a good job when you didn’t do a good job.

“He calls it likes he sees it. And when he calls it like he sees it, I think players trust him. They know when he says something, he really means it and it’s probably true.”

Avoiding Lions-like collapses on special teams begins with that core group of players who can’t crack into the starting lineup. For now, Green is buried on the depth chart. Cedric Benson has carried the ball at least 17 times in each of the last three games. Green has two for the season. And now with James Starks healthy, the 2011 third-round pick probably won’t be a regular on offense for a while.

So at practice Thursday, Slocum stayed on Green. He talked to him between plays. He yelled for him to “Stand up!” before a snap on a punt return. The attention must be constant.

“He’s always fired up 24/7, so that helps,” Green said. “When it’s time for special teams, it’s not, ‘Ughh,’ it’s ‘Let’s go!’ He brings a lot of passion and energy to it, especially in practice when guys really don’t really want to do it.”

This has been a rocky season for the Packers, one jam-packed with controversy, an inconsistent passing game and unknowns on defense.

But a commitment to special teams play may be the biggest reason Green Bay has broken even.

“We just take great pride in it,” Green said. “Most teams around the league don’t look at it as a big part of team success, but we take great pride in it. All three phases are equal — offense, defense and special teams.”

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