Veteran wideout pair gives Green Bay edge Freeman, Brooks fill void on returns left by Howard

Packers special teams

January 24, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

SAN DIEGO -- A year ago, Desmond Howard gave the Green Bay Packers a decisive edge in special teams play with his slippery returns. After searching the entire season for an adequate replacement, the team has gone back to the players who handled those chores before Howard arrived -- veterans Antonio Freeman and Robert Brooks.

Risky business, perhaps, to use his starting wideouts as return men, but coach Mike Holmgren wasn't disappointed -- or hurt -- with his postseason switch.

In two playoff games, Freeman averaged 18 yards on three kickoff returns. His best runback, a 90-yard touchdown against Tampa Bay, was called back for a holding penalty.

Brooks, meanwhile, returned five punts for an average of 14.8 yards.

Better yet, there were no major glitches by either player heading into Super Bowl XXXII against the Denver Broncos tomorrow.

The strength of Green Bay's special teams in the postseason, though, has been the kicking game. In his playoff baptism, rookie Ryan Longwell hit five of six field-goal tries. During the regular season, he hit 24 of 30 three-pointers, including three of five beyond 40 yards.

Punter Craig Hentrich, soon to be a free agent, had a net average of 36 yards during the regular season with 26 kicks inside the 20-yard line. He had a phenomenal stretch in the two playoff games, delivering eight of 10 punts inside the 20.

Because of that, the Packers have allowed an average of just 5.8 yards per punt return in the postseason.

Giving up a 95-yard touchdown to San Francisco's Chuck Levy, the kickoff coverage team did not fare as well -- giving up an average of 23.6 yards.

The best special teams matchup will pit Hentrich against Denver punt returner Darrien Gordon. Gordon averaged 13.6 yards per return this season with three touchdowns. In three playoff games, he improved that figure to 17.3 yards.

Pub Date: 1/24/98

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