Packers must fix special teams before it matters again

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Just because the Green Bay Packers won in dramatic fashion on Sunday over the New York Jets doesn't mean their special-teams play didn't border on disastrous.

Imagine the venom that would've been hurled at special teams coordinator Ron Zook had this been a game with postseason implications -- not just one to play out the string -- and the botched plays by his units not been masked by Aaron Rodgers' comeback overtime victory.

Either way, Zook will have to answer to interim coach Joe Philbin about why his troops were responsible for:

  • Andre Roberts' 99-yard kickoff return for a second-quarter touchdown, during which kicker Mason Crosby was the only Packers' player to even get a hand on the veteran returner.

  • Roberts' 51-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter to set up the field goal that forced overtime.

  • Rookie J'Mon Moore's fumbled kickoff return in the third quarter that set up an easy touchdown.

  • The Jets' fake-punt run for a first down in the fourth quarter.

"I believe in the coaches that we have, the coaches here I have great faith in," said Philbin, who did not hire Zook. "We're going to go take a look at the tape and we're going to practice, meet, practice and perform better next Sunday."

Nothing is guaranteed for anyone on the coaching staff beyond this week's regular-season finale, but there are plenty of coaches who have made a case to be retained by the next full-time Packers head coach. Zook's case, however, isn't as strong.

At the conclusion of Sunday's game, the Packers ranked tied for the most special-teams penalties among all NFL teams with 24. They had 23 last year, which ranked fifth most. The only time in Zook's four seasons as coordinator that they didn't rank among the top nine most-penalized special teams was his second season, 2016, when they had the 13th most with 18.

Penalties weren't the biggest problem Sunday.

"Obviously, we just didn't cover well on kickoffs," Crosby said. "There were those two returns, and that starts with me needing to kick off a little bit better at times. And then we have to cover better. They had a great plan and we weren't able to get to them. Other than that, we had the fumble on the kickoff return and I couldn't see it real clear, but it looked like a couple of guys beat their blocks and got their hat on the ball. Those are unfortunate, but with all that said, the fact that we won this game was exceptional. Offense, defense and special teams, we win and we lose as a team, and this one is a prime example of that."

On the whole, the Packers haven't really fixed their problems on special teams since Brandon Bostick blew the onside kick recovery in the 2014 NFC Championship Game loss at Seattle. That game cost Shawn Slocum his job and gave it to Zook, Slocum's former assistant.

It hasn't helped Zook that it has been a revolving door of players, and that's not just among returners. Although the return position has been problematic without Trevor Davis, whose preseason hamstring injury wiped out the team's best option. Six different players have returned punts this season and seven have returned kickoffs.

By comparison, the Jets have 42 kickoff returns this season, and Roberts has handled 38 of them. On punts, he has taken 22 of their 24.

"I don't know what they were trying to do," Roberts said. "But I was just hoping they would kick to me. I don't think they were planning on kicking it deep. I think it was a little bit of a mortar to try and mess up our timing but what we did worked."

Said Crosby: "We've covered really well on kickoffs this year. Honestly, it's a bit surprising that it happened. I thought we had a good plan, and we were going into the game very confident. If anything, we'll look at it -- we got the win -- and we'll be better prepared next week."