Since he began as the Packers' special teams coach in 2009, Shawn Slocum has come under a ton of fire and vitriol. Fans were screaming for his head as the Packers had no special returner and to many times had gotten burned by allowing big returns. However, last season Slocum's special teams started to turn it around and have really taken it to another level to start this season.
Part of the reason Slocum's special teams struggled was coaching, but a lot of it was personnel as well. One of the biggest mistake's during Ted Thompson's tenure so far has been cutting Jon Ryan in 2008. Two awful punters followed him in Derrick Frost and Jeremy Kapinos, before they finally found a suitable replacement in Tim Masthay.
The Packers had been searching for an actual threat as a returner for years until Thompson finally addressed the issue and drafted Randall Cobb in the 2nd round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Cobb broke the record for the longest kick return in NFL history in his NFL debut by returning a kick 108 yards.
The Packers have also greatly improved their personnel on their coverage teams. The Packers have really started to take special teams into account when deciding their roster spots. If you are a player on the roster bubble you better be able to contribute on special teams. An NFL players' dream obviously is not to be a gunner on special teams, but you have to get them committed. Mike McCarthy and Slocum have done a great job of driving that message home.
In a close game special teams can a lot of times be the difference in the game. Field position is always a key in a game and a punt or kick return for a touchdown is always a huge momentum shift. Also, getting a turnover on special teams is always huge, as teams who have forced a special teams turnover are 8-1 this season (it's really 9-1 but the refs didn't count the one the Packers got last Sunday).
The Packers' two wins on the season are in large part due to key special teams plays. In Week 2 vs. Chicago, the Packers offense was struggling and the team needed a spark. On fourth-and-26 on the Chicago 27-yard line, Tom Crabtree scored a touchdown that gave the Packers a 10-0 and they rolled from their. It was beautifully designed and executed, as Crabtree ran across the formation and took a toss from from holder Tim Masthay and ran for a touchdown through a hole that was the size of Lake Michigan.
There was another huge fake on special teams that was a key to Sunday's victory over the Saints as well. The Packers led 14-7 midway through the second quarter and lined up to punt on fourth-and-17. The Saints double teamed the gunners, looking for a big return from Darren Sproles, which led to them having only six defenders in the box. It was to easy for John Kuhn as he took a direct snap and went up the middle for an easy five yard gain and a first down. The Packers coasted to another touchdown following that play when Aaron Rodgers threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to James Jones to put the Packers up 21-7.
The Packers have held two of the most dangerous returners in the NFL in Devin Hester and Darren Sproles to no big returns. Mason Crosby is perfect on field goals this season and Masthay is tied for the league lead with 11 punts downed inside the 20. Also, Cobb is 6th in the league in punt return average (15.4). Combine that with the two fakes, the fumble they really forced and that they have allowed no back crushing returns, this unit has been spectacular.
The Packers' season has been riddled with inconstancy. Their offense has struggled to put up points for the most part and their defense has been good against the average offenses but bad against the good offenses they have faced. Their only consistent unit has been the special teams. It will take the rest of the units to play at the level that the special teams is now to get the Packers to New Orleans.