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Packers punt returner Tavon Austin fumbles in front of Bears' DeAndre Houston-Carson during the second quarter Sunday. 

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GREEN BAY — Shawn Mennenga looked a bit beaten down on Wednesday.

The Green Bay Packers second-year special teams coordinator has been in the coaching business for a long time, and he knows being in charge of the special teams units presents its own set of unique problems. So much of what those groups do are one-shot deals — as he and others before him have often pointed out, there is no second down or third down on special teams — and things can go wrong in a myriad of ways.

At the same time, Mennenga gets that criticism comes with the territory — and that his crew has made enough mistakes to merit such scrutiny.

Nevertheless, with the Packers prepping this week for their NFC divisional playoff game against a yet-to-be-determined opponent, Mennenga insisted Wednesday afternoon that his players have not lost confidence despite a number of gaffes over the past several weeks.

“I’m with these guys every day, coaching them and listening to them. I don’t think there’s a confidence issue within our group,” Mennenga said. “They expect to go out and make plays. They’re a resilient group. If something bad happens, we talk about moving on — learn from the past but get ready for your next play. That’s the only thing you can control is the play you’ve got in front of you, and our guys have adopted that.

“We expect to go out and play well and make plays. I just don’t think there’s a confidence issue within our group. … They understand when the plays happen that it hurts the team and it’s definitely not what we want.”

Unfortunately for the Packers, however, there have been a number of those plays, the types of plays coach Matt LaFleur has said repeatedly can be the difference in a win-or-go-home playoff game.

“We’re going to need that consistent effort each and every week. Our special teams need to be special. It’s one-third of the game,” LaFleur said late last month. “Each and every week is a good challenge for us. Our guys have got to be locked in. Not only to their responsibilities, but there’s a lot of times within special teams where there’s a lot of moving parts. Injuries are a part of the game, unfortunately, and you might have to move guys around so they’ve got to know the whole concept. There can’t be any drop-off, no matter who’s in there. There’s got to be a standard to which you play at and in order to achieve that standard, you’ve got to own your responsibilities and go out there and execute.”

That execution has been hit-or-miss at times this season, and while there have been plenty of instances where the special teams units have done their jobs, what are more often remembered are the mistakes. And there have been plenty of them:

  • In last Sunday’s win over the Chicago Bears, punt returner Tavon Austin fumbled a punt that the Bears recovered at the Green Bay 20-yard line and turned into a field goal for a 10-7 lead;
  • The previous week in a win over the Tennessee Titans, kicker Mason Crosby, who was a perfect 16-for-16 on field goal attempts in the regular season, had a 35-yard field-goal attempt blocked, only for the play to be wiped out by a questionable offsides call on the Titans. Crosby also missed his fourth extra point of the year;
  • In a Dec. 19 win over Carolina, the Packers narrowly averted a late-game disaster when outside protector Oren Burks missed a block and punter JK Scott narrowly got his kick away. The Packers had an eight-point lead at the time — and Scott was punting from inside his own 10-yard line;
  • In a Dec. 6 win over Philadelphia, the punt coverage unit let the Eagles back into the game by allowing Jalen Reagor’s 73-yard punt return for a touchdown. It was the second return for a touchdown against the group as Jacksonville’s Keelan Cole had a 91-yarder for a TD on Nov. 15;
  • In a Nov. 22 loss at Indianapolis, returner Darrius Shepherd coughed up a fumble on a fourth-quarter kickoff return in a 28-28 game, allowing the Colts to take a 31-28 lead in what wound up being a 34-31 Packers loss;
  • In a Nov. 5 win at San Francisco, Scott had a punt blocked when fill-in up-back protector Dexter Williams blew his protection assignment;
  • And in an Oct. 25 win over the Houston Texans, the onside kick recovery unit failed to cover the Texans’ onside kick attempt.

In fairness, every special teams group has its mistakes during the course of a 16-game season, but the Packers’ units have also failed to generate many big plays on returns — something that was an issue even before oft-injured returner Tyler Ervin landed on injured reserve with his latest injury, an ankle. The Packers finished regular-season play ranked 31st in the 32-team league in kickoff return average (18.9 yards per return) and tied for 30th in punt return average (4.8 yards per return). Only Minnesota was less productive on punt returns; only Miami was worse on kickoff returns.

“Obviously as coaches you never want to do things that hurt the team,” Mennenga said. “We’re a young group, but we’ve been out there and played some older veteran groups. We haven’t been bullied. We’re going to go out there and we’re going to play hard, we’re going to play physical and we haven’t been knocked around and things like that.

“There have been some plays that haven’t went our way that we’d love to have back, but I don’t think there’s a confidence issue within our group.”

The challenge for Mennega’s group — beyond avoiding that one play that in a playoff game that will “get you beat,” as LaFleur has said of several of those aforementioned mistakes this season — is to repair what is wrong when it’s never the same issue.

For instance, while Austin’s fumble was a potentially huge play against the Bears, the Packers coverage units actually were quite effective in that game. Dangerous kickoff returner Cordarrelle Patterson was kept in check, and both of Scott’s punts in the game (45, 42 yards) forced fair catches. And even LaFleur acknowledged before Austin’s fumble that the group seemed to be on the upswing.

But in the postseason, all it takes is one disastrous play to ruin a game, and Mennenga knows that full well. Despite Austin’s troublesome history of fumbling and the unlikelihood of Ervin returning, Mennenga said Wednesday that he and LaFleur have not discussed the idea of simply putting a sure-handed player back on punts to merely fair catch everything to mitigate the odds of a game-changing mistake.

“There hasn’t been a consistent pattern of anything that’s popped up. It’s just, those things happen. It’s frustrating,” Mennenga said. “Obviously, we’re trying to create field position both good, through the coverage units, and through the return units. We’re trying to handle all those things

“We’re trying to get better in everything, guys. Like I said, it’s been frustrating. But we’ve also made some plays to help the team out here too.”


Photos: Packers' 2020 season so far in pictures

Photos: Packers' 2020 season so far in pictures

Check out photo galleries from every game of 2020 through the end of the regular season and the playoffs — if the Packers make it.

This article originally ran on madison.com.

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