Green Bay kicking specialists shine
GREEN BAY—The Green Bay Packers have had top-notch performances from their kickers and top-notch performances from their return and coverage units during Aaron Rodgers’ hiatus.
Until Sunday, the two primary phases of special teams hadn’t been stellar on the same day.
Mason Crosby, Tim Masthay, Micah Hyde and assorted others were major contributors at snow-covered Lambeau Field in the Packers’ 22-21 triumph over the Atlanta Falcons.
“As I think back through it, I don’t recall us playing poorly,” Masthay said in reference to the almost five full games without Rodgers. “I wouldn’t say we dropped the ball … but we might have been a little bit too pedestrian.
“We’re always trying to make an impact. No phase really made enough splash plays. Impactful today.”
The day dawned brutally cold, with the mercury hovering at 9 degrees by the noon kickoff and the wind chill at minus-1.
Masthay didn’t punt until the third quarter, giving him 90 minutes to sit around and get chilled after a vigorous warmup.
Crosby’s first of three field-goal attempts was his most difficult of the day, if not his most difficult of the season. Following a third-down sack, Crosby ran out for a 40-yard try at the south end.
“The wind was a little bit fickle,” Masthay said. “It was a crosswind, with going north a little bit of help and going south with a little bit hurting.”
Since the expansion of the south-end grandstand, Crosby indicated it’s more difficult to kick there now.
“With the new addition it doesn’t get as much sunlight, and the turf is actually a little more sparse down there,” he said. “The footing was a little bit different, but the operation was great and I felt like I put a good strike on it. It felt like I hit all three really solid.”
By also connecting from 33 and 25 at the north end, Crosby has hit 10 in a row and 29 of 33 in 13 games. His mark of 87.9 percent stands above his career-best of 85.7 percent in 2011.
Crosby saluted the groundskeepers in Green Bay for their delicate work managing the underground heating system and tarp usage over the DD GrassMaster field.
“I’m pretty fortunate to have a surface we can play on this late in the year and still trust our footing,” he said. “I don’t think I slipped all day going into my plant, and I wasn’t really wearing long cleats.”
Masthay’s moment of truth arrived with about 1 minute left from the Green Bay 37. He was punting toward the south end, too.
“My hope was to hit a really hard, tight-spiraled ball,” said Masthay. “Then the bounce is kind of out of my control. It took a favorable bounce. It played out kind of ideally. It was a big play for us.”
Masthay’s hang time of 3.57 seconds wasn’t much, but the distance was. Helped by a substantial roll, the 62-yard punt was his longest since a 65-yarder in Game 8 last season.
Jarrett Bush prevented the rolling ball from reaching the end zone but Davon House came close to knocking it in from the 1. Robert McClain scooped it up and returned it 8 yards to the 9, but the Falcons had too much field to traverse and never got a decisive field-goal attempt.
Atlanta’s Matt Bryant, whose fourth-quarter try from 52 at the north end came up a few yards short, studied Crosby’s handling of the snow and ice.
“I think you have to drive the ball a little bit more and hit it a little higher,” said Bryant. “Finally, you have to adjust to the fact that it’s cold, the ball won’t go as far and the field is a mess.”
Masthay’s two third-quarter punts were 47 and 33 yards, and the 33-yarder went out at the Atlanta 17. His 13-game net of 40.1 yards is ahead of his mark of 38.9 set last year.
Meanwhile, the Packers’ kickoff-return unit, which has ranked last in the league since mid-October, showed some life.
Hyde had returns of 31 and 30 yards. His long of the season had been just 31.
He also returned a punt 12 yards but appeared mad at himself after calling for a fair catch late in the second quarter with room to run.
Green Bay’s 32nd-ranked kickoff coverage clamped Jacquizz Rodgers. On six returns, he averaged just 21 yards.
For a change, the Packers had an advantage in average starting point by 5 yards.
“Special teams were excellent,” said coach Mike McCarthy. “I haven’t seen how the field position came out statistically, but that was obviously an emphasis going into the game.”