It seems impossible for the Green Bay Packers to play complementary football most weeks.
Through half of a season, it rarely seems like the offense, defense, and special teams are on the same page. The offense mostly did well in Sunday’s loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. As always, there were mistakes, but we’re seeing the growth we expected from these young players. Meanwhile, the defense gave up over 200 rushing yards to a poor ground attack, and special teams made plenty of mistakes masked by some impressive Keisean Nixon runs.
The last point might be a reoccurring trend at this point. Over the past two weeks, Nixon is starting to look like his All-Pro self at returner, breaking through holes and setting up Green Bay’s offense with good field position. But the rest of special teams is hindering more than helping. Between penalties, missed blocks, missed tackles, and muffed attempts by the specialists, special teams has been a mixed bag.
Rich Bisaccia was hired to change the culture around the consistently cursed third phase in Green Bay, and it looks like he has. The Packers are finding dedicated special teams players, starters are seeing action on the unit, and a role on teams is viewed as a blessing rather than the only way to make the roster for marginal players. Yet the results haven’t changed — this is still a below-average unit on the whole. A year and a half into the Bisaccia era and the Packers still aren’t a good special teams unit. What’s keeping them from getting there?
Sunday’s performance was a perfect sample of what the unit has looked like all year. As for the good, Nixon returned five kicks for 139 yards. Anders Carlson made both of his field goals, crucial in a game where the offense struggled in the red zone. The Packers didn’t commit a special teams penalty this week, and the group only missed one tackle.
On the negative end, Carlson had an extra point blocked thanks to an abysmal block from Josiah Deguara. That missing point loomed large with Green Bay down four, rather than three, toward the end of the game. Carlson had two poor kickoffs to start the game; the first almost rolled out of bounds, and the second one did. Jayden Reed muffed a punt in Amari Rodgers-like fashion. (Thankfully, the rookie recovered it.) The unit also allowed Calvin Austin‘s explosive return.
Bisaccia’s specialists have been inconsistent throughout the year. Carlson has been more good than bad, a testament to coaching. But the rookie kicker needs more work with kickoffs, and his missed kicks could have been difference-makers in close games. Daniel Whelan has played poorly in the past few weeks. The Packers have the second-lowest net average punting yards, according to NFL.com, with 38.7.
Green Bay’s penalties have slowed down after being abundant earlier in the season. But with such a respected coach in Year 2 of his tenure, they shouldn’t have been this plentiful to begin with.
We knew the offense would need some assistance in these trying times. Most of us accepted that as long as Joe Barry is the defensive coordinator, the defense won’t live up to its talent level. We expected Bisaccia’s unit, which elevated Green Bay’s special teams unit from dead last in 2021 to almost league average in 2022, to be the reliable phase.
That hasn’t happened. The group looks worse than it did last year. Did Nixon’s emergence deceive us and cover up that the rest of the group wasn’t good? I’ve been a huge advocate for Bisaccia, but his unit is underperforming. And it’s once again reminding us that he chose to keep Amari Rodgers in a role he wasn’t suited for for far too long.
Bisaccia visibly changed how Green Bay views special teams, and for the better. The Packers made free-agent acquisitions and draft selections with special teams roles in mind. Starters are playing much larger roles on teams than ever before. Vocal leaders like Dallin Leavitt and Keisean Nixon have elevated the culture.
But the results still aren’t there. A team with this much invested into the unit should be league average, at the very least.
It’s hard to identify the problem, especially in this evaluation year. All three phases seem to have coaching issues this year. The other two coordinators should be on warm seats. Should Bisaccia be too?
Or is it a personnel problem? Arguably the team’s best teams player, Tyler Davis, was lost for the season, and his presence has been missed. Josiah Deguara has played some of that role, but mostly poorly. Other special teams players like Jonathan Owens have made multiple mistakes. There may still be a deficiency in identifying the right talent for teams.
I’m obviously not ready to give up on Bisaccia yet. He has a respected history coaching special teams and his players love fighting for him. Bisaccia’s work as interim head coach for the Las Vegas Raiders was impressive, and he’s one of the few coaches on this team capable of punching above his weight class. But we have a year-and-a-half sample size in Green Bay, and his unit is underperforming.