If the Vikings are going to be able to accomplish something they haven't done in five years – beat the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field – field position could play a big role.
There aren't any better teams in the NFL in terms of starting field position after a kickoff.
Chicago's average starting position after kickoffs is the 26.2-yard line, best in the league. The Vikings are second at the 25.6-yard line.
"Every time we play Chicago, that is always an issue. We struggle with field position there," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "I can remember some times when we felt like we were on short fields all day long on a couple different occasions. It drives you crazy."
The Bears also have the league's best kick coverage unit, with opponents' average starting position at the 19.4-yard line after kickoffs. The Vikings are 11th at the 21.5-yard line.
"(Field position) is something we will talk about. It's funny that you bring that up. That will be a major part of whether or not we are successful, if we can do a better job in that regard," Frazier said. "We have not done a very good job in years past."
The Vikings have lost the last five games against the Bears and haven't beaten them at Soldier Field since a 34-31 win in 2007.
But, with all the concern over field position, there are a couple of major differences this year for the Vikings.
First is rookie kicker Blair Walsh.
Walsh leads the league with a 68.6-yard average on his kickoffs and is third with 41 touchbacks. However, his percentage of kickoffs going for touchbacks, 74.5, leads the league.
For the previous six years, kicking for the Vikings has been the domain of Ryan Longwell. Longwell averaged 64.8 yards per kickoff last year, 26th in the league, and had only 19 touchbacks.
"Ryan didn't have a great year last, but it was not just Ryan," Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said in late August when asked how much kickoffs had to do with the Vikings drafting Walsh and releasing Longwell. "If you look at the guys we did let go, we were trying to get our football team younger and inject some youth in here. We just felt Ryan did an unbelievable job for us while he was here. … We just felt for our team right now, the direction we wanted to go was to get a young kicker."
In 2010, under the old spot for kickoffs at the 30-yard line, Longwell had only three touchbacks and averaged 62.3 yards per kickoff.
For the Bears, Robbie Gould has been averaging 66.7 yards – tied for ninth in the league – on kickoffs and has 31 touchbacks this year.
Another difference for the Vikings is their increased use of Percy Harvin on kickoff returns. He missed the last game with an ankle sprain, but the coaching staff is hopeful he can play Sunday.
Harvin is averaging 35.9 yards on 16 kickoff returns, second in the NFL. He is also on pace to shatter the franchise record of a 28.7-yard average from Aundrae Allison in 2007, with the qualifier of having 20 or more returns. Even lowering the qualifier down to five returns, making it unofficial, only Hershel Walker with a 28.8-yard average in 1989, beats Allison – and he is still more than 7 yards behind Harvin's average.
Of course, the Bears have their own dangerous return specialist in Devin Hester, who already owns the NFL's all-time record for career kick returns touchdowns (17) in the regular season – 12 on punts and five on kickoff returns. He also holds the fourth-best career punt-return average (12.4) in NFL history, although he is down to an 8.0-yard average this year.
Vikings punter Chris Kluwe knows all too well about Hester's exploits. Three of Hester's punt-return touchdowns and one of his kickoff return touchdowns have come against the Vikings. He also has receiving touchdowns of 19, 25, 48 and 81 yards against Minnesota.
"We need (Kluwe) to have a big week," Frazier said. "That returner they have is pretty special."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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