Special teams take center stage at Packers' practice

Posted Aug. 10, 2010 @ 6:08 p.m.
Posted By Dan Arkush

GREEN BAY, Wis. — An increased emphasis on special teams has been quite evident in the Packers' training camp this season, and the team's Tuesday-morning practice was no exception, as the booming voice of special-teams coach Shawn Slocum was impossible to ignore, barking instructions over a loudspeaker over and over again with an intensity that rivaled the gruff drill sergeant in the movie "Full Metal Jacket."

"He is very vocal," said a smiling Derrick Martin, one of the Packers' key special-team members, of Slocum. "But he needs to get his points across. When you have what's considered one of the best offenses and one of the best defenses, you want your special teams to be just as good. They have switched a couple of things around, and I think we look so much better. Everybody is starting to understand the dynamic that special teams really are a third of the game."

In that context, it would be accurate to say that the Packers left a great deal to be desired one-third of the time last season due to special teams that performed very inconsistently and made way too many fundamental mistakes.

"We are devoting considerably more time to special teams, although I can't give you an exact number," Slocum told a small cluster of reporters after practice. "We also are spending a lot more time on special teams in meetings. It is an area we really need to improve."

It is also an area featuring continued spirited competition at punter — with former Australian Rules player Chris Bryan battling Tim Masthay, who had a cup of coffee with the Colts last offseason — as well as at both kick-return spots.  

"I would definitely say it's neck-and-neck," said Packers head coach Mike McCarthy of the battle between Bryan and Masthay. "The Family Night scrimmage (last Saturday) showed that we have two really talented punters. They both held their own, kicking under the lights in a game-type environment. We put them under pressure with a punt rush throughout the scrimmage, and they both performed very well.

"It should be interesting to see them in the first real game (later this week) against Cleveland. It's kind of a Catch-22 because hopefully they won't have too many opportunities, but both guys have worked very hard and we want to max out their opportunities.

"I'm very excited where they are, and I'm not in any hurry to make a final decision."

As for the kick-return situation, McCarthy said, "We have a lot of flexibility, and I'm very happy with the numbers."

Slocum later hinted that incumbent Will Blackmon, who is coming back from a season-ending injury, lining up as the punt returner and RB Brandon Jackson as the kickoff returner was "a pretty good scenario."

• The LB position continued to be a hot topic, with both McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers offering opinions on the subject after practice.

Capers said that Clay Matthews, who is currently sidelined with a hamstring injury, is "obviously one of the guys" at one of the OLB spots, with three players (Brad Jones, Brandon Chillar and Brady Poppinga) staging a real battle for the starting job opposite Matthews. 

"I feel very good about the competition opposite Clay," said Capers. "Brad has done well. He quickly became comfortable with our assignments despite not practicing that long last year. If any one of them goes down, I feel confident we have someone who can step right in."

As for inside linebacker, both Capers and McCarthy had good things to say about former first-rounder A.J. Hawk, who has had his share of detractors.

"He's playing real well," Capers said of Hawk. "You saw him show up the other night at the Family Scrimmage. He had a real nice inside rush."

McCarthy said this has probably been Hawk's best camp in his five years at the pro level.

"I like his approach," McCarthy said. "He has always been a highly conditioned athlete, and he's taken that to another level this year and been very productive. He also stood out in the scrimmage Saturday night."

• Star CB Charles Woodson held court for a few minutes near the end of Tuesday morning's open locker-room interview session but chose to talk more about a couple of his fellow secondary members than himself.

Woodson was asked if he thought lightning-quick undrafted rookie Sam Shields, who has emerged as somewhat of a fan favorite, had a future as a pro cornerback.

"He definitely has speed," Woodson said. "But he's also a young guy who hasn't played at this level. But the one thing you can't coach is speed, and he certainly has that. If he can get the defense down, he could have a future."

Woodson also said he was not worried about third-round rookie Morgan Burnett quite possibly having to start the regular season at strong safety over Atari Bigby, who was forced to undergo ankle surgery.

"That doesn't give me any pause at all," Woodson said of Burnett. "So far he's risen to the challenge. As far as practice goes, he's done really well, and once the season starts, I wouldn't expect anything different."

• On a personal note, one of my coolest experiences ever took place Tuesday during my daily early-morning jog. The fog was quite thick as I began my run down Lombardi Avenue, and the sight of Lambeau Field emerging from the mist in all its splendor was dream-like, to say the least.

Dinner last night with fellow PFW editor Dan Parr and longtime PFW pal and Packers play-by-play commentator Wayne Larrivee at the Brett Favre Steakhouse right next to our motel was also pretty cool.

Predictably, I changed my mind on my dinner order at least four times.


Related link: Monday's Packers training-camp notebook


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