Packers must overcome special teams gap to beat Cowboys in playoffs

The Green Bay Packers defense will face the tall task of trying to slow down the Dallas Cowboys’ high-scoring offense during Sunday’s NFC Wild Card Round showdown. But another area where the Cowboys have the advantage, at least on paper, is special teams.

In Rick Gosselin’s annual special teams rankings for 2023, the Packers dropped seven spots to 29th place, while the Cowboys were ranked as the 12th best.

Cowboys return man KaVontae Turpin has speed, and he has been dynamic with the ball in his hands, specifically on kickoffs, where he’s averaged 29.2 yards per return during the regular season–the second-best rate in football. Turpin also handles punt returns as well.

“He’s a tremendous challenge,” said Rich Bisaccia of Turpin. “He’s got great speed. He’s got great vision, can make you miss, and he can score. He can go the distance. He’s really fast anyway, but he’s extremely fast in that particular stadium. How we deal with him in the punt game and how we deal with him in the kickoff game remains to be seen, but he’s a problem.”

The Packers’ coverage units have probably been the most consistent aspects of the special teams unit this season, with Bisaccia calling their performances in those phases “solid,” but Turpin will present them with a challenge.

Brandon Aubrey was one of the most reliable kickers this season, making 94.7 percent of his field goal attempts. This includes going 10-for-10 from 50-plus yards. He’s basically been automatic at home.

And if you’re hoping that now two-time All-Pro Keisean Nixon will have the opportunity to provide the Packers with a spark, odds are he won’t have the opportunity to do so with Aubrey booting the ball through the end zone. Only 7.3 percent of Aubrey’s kickoffs were returned in 2023–a league low.

“Well, he hasn’t in that stadium,” said Bisaccia about Aubrey giving up kick return attempts in Dallas. “Unless you’re determined to return it. He’s had a couple miss hits. I think Washington had three returns against him last week, although it was outdoors. But he’s having a tremendous year. Not only on kickoffs but what he’s doing on field goals as well. He might have missed a couple PATs in there somewhere, but he’s had a tremendous year.”

On top of all of that, the Cowboys have four blocked kicks this season. If the Packers are going to have the opportunity to make a splash on special teams, it may have to come on punt returns, where nearly 55 percent of Bryan Anger’s punt attempts are returned with that coverage unit allowing 10.4 yards per return, which is slightly below league average.

“They got a good punt rush team and playing with big people inside,” added Bisaccia. “They were a challenge last year playing against them up here. We expect the same challenge going into their place.”

The Packers special teams unit has been plagued by penalties this season, with Green Bay leading the NFL in most penalties accepted in that phase of the game. With a Cowboys offense averaging almost 30 points per game, they don’t need any extra help from self-inflicted penalties by the Packers special teams unit.

Anders Carlson has also gone through the rookie roller coaster, missing either an extra point or a field goal in eight of his last 10 games–a far cry from the steady presence that the Cowboys have in Aubrey.

Everything is magnified once you get to the NFL playoffs. And as Packers fans have learned over the years, that includes special teams miscues. If the Packers are going to pull off the upset, they’ll have to be buttoned up on special teams.

Missed field goals, penalties, losing the field position battle, or whatever other issue could present itself may prove to be too much to overcome when coupled with the challenge that the Cowboys’ offensive and defensive units bring to the table as well.

Story originally appeared on Packers Wire