Special is as special does

Posted Sep 20, 2012

Look past the Packers' explosive passing game and the Seahawks' smothering defense in Monday night’s matchup for just a second and consider: Could the game be decided by the play of the special teams?

There seems to be two hot-topic concerns for the Seahawks as they prepare for Monday night’s nationally televised game against the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field:

Will the Seahawks’ No. 6-ranked defense, which smothered the Dallas Cowboys in the second half of last week’s 20-point victory, be able to contain the Packers’ explosive offense?

Or, if that doesn’t happen, will the Seahawks’ 28th-ranked offense be able to match the Packers’ output against a Green Bay defense that ranks No. 5 in the NFL and leads the league with 11 sacks?

Here’s another thought: What if the “Monday Night Football” matchup is decided by the play of the special teams?

Preposterous? The Packers have Aaron Rodgers, the reigning league MVP. And Charles Woodson, last seasons’ NFL Defensive Player of the Year. And Clay Matthews, who already has six sacks in two games. And Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley and Randall Cobb, who have combined to catch 31 passes for 318 yards. And initialed linebackers A.J. Hawk and D.J. Smith, who have 41 tackles between them. The Seahawks will counter with Marshawn Lynch, the Beast Mode-running back who leads the league in rushing since Week 9 of last season. And an improving offensive line anchored by center Max Unger. And a Pro Bowl-laced secondary that includes safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor and cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman. And a defensive front seven led by the disruptiveness of ends Red Bryant and Chris Clemons and nose tackle Brandon Mebane, as well as do-it-all linebacker K.J. Wright.

Obviously. OK. Without question.

But don’t let the star power in this game dim what the special teams have been able to accomplish during the club’s 1-1 starts. The Seahawks’ special teams are rated second in the league and the Packers fifth, according to the weekly rankings compiled by Football Outsiders.

“It will be a good battle and a really good test for us,” said punter Jon Ryan, who played his first two NFL seasons with the Packers before joining the Seahawks in 2008 – when he set about rewriting the franchise record book at his position.

“If you look at the special teams as a whole unit, neither team really has any holes.”

Just for kicks, let’s start with the Seahawks’ Steven Hauschka, who’s 5 of 6 on field goal attempts with the one “miss” a block; and the Packers’ Mason Crosby, who is 3 of 3 on field goals and with six touchbacks on his kickoffs has one more than Hauschka.

Then there are the punters. Ryan is averaging 50.0 yards on eight punts with a net of 42.6. The Packers’ Tim Masthay has averages of 47.9 and 41.7 and leads the league with seven punts downed inside the 20-yard line. And, in the first half of last week’s win over the Chicago Bears, Masthay – who, like Ryan, also is the holder – completed a 27-yard touchdown pass on a fake field goal.

There also have been many happy returns for both teams. The Packers’ Cobb has scored, on a 75-yard punt return, and is averaging 24.0 yards on punts and 23.5 yards on kickoffs. The Seahawks’ Leon Washington is averaging 14.5 and 38.3, with long returns of 83 yards (kickoff) and 52 yards (punt).

The Seahawks also have a special teams TD, on Malcolm Smith’s blocked punt against the Cowboys that Jeron Johnson ran in for a score. On the opening kickoff in that game, Thomas also recovered a Michael Robinson-forced fumble to set up a field goal.

As for coverage, the Seahawks held Patrick Peterson to a 9.3-yard average on four punts returns in their opener, while the Packers allowed Devin Hester averages of 4.0 (punts) and 28.5 (kickoffs) last week. Last season, they averaged 16.2 (Hester) and 15.9 (Peterson) to rank 1-2 in the league.

But Packers coach Mike McCarthy is concerned about Washington’s ability as a returner.

“We have two special teams touchdowns in two games, so that’s definitely a plus,” he said Thursday during a conference-call interview. “But we have some things we have to work on. Seattle’s return game is excellent, and (coverage) is something that we have to do a better job of. So we’ve really emphasized the kickoff coverage and punt coverage.”

This and that. That and this. All these areas should make for a series of intriguing matchups within Monday night’s game.

“You like matchups like this – you like to face some of the best returners, you like to face some of the best competition. Just to see where you are,” said Robinson, the Pro Bowl fullback but also a special teams co-captain who leads the Seahawks with three coverage tackles.

“It’s always like that when you face a good unit. The Chicago Bears are another unit that whenever you face them your senses are heightened because you know it’s a big-time challenge. This is definitely a big-time challenge, and we look forward to it.”