In a season where football talk has often been buried behind the off-the-field news, Vikings punter Chris Kluwe has been burying opponents inside the 20-yard line.
Kluwe has committed to more hang time, sometimes at the expense of raw gross average with his punts, and the results have been more consistency and shorter returns.
"Before it was more directional than anything, so it was pin them down as close to the sideline as you can, but we're still OK with the distance," Kluwe said. "This year, it's more (that) we don't want you to hit it past 44 yards, just hang it up in the air, let our guys get down there and cover it and that's what's going to help the team out."
The results have been impressive. Kluwe is only 12th in the NFL in gross punting average, but he is second in net average at 42.2 yards, just two-tenths of a yard behind Oakland's Shane Lechler.
On Sunday, all four of Kluwe's punts ended up inside the 20-yard line, with one being pinned on the 1-yard line after Heath Farwell dove into the end zone to bat the ball backwards and Kenny Onatolu downed it just outside the goal line.
"It's huge. Great effort play," Vikings coach Brad Childress said. "First of all, you have the kick that you can do that, but then you've got to be able to protect on one end and then be able to cover on the other end. It was a great effort play."
Unprompted, Childress singled out Kluwe's performance twice already this week – Monday at his day-after-game press conference and Tuesday on Sirius NFL Radio. On Tuesday, Kluwe was named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week.
"The guy that is playing unbelievably is Chris Kluwe," Childress said Monday. "Now there's another four balls down inside the 20-yard line. That guy is kicking the football lights-out, and it doesn't make any difference what his numbers show – it's just a matter of how many they're getting a chance legitimately to return and then how many he's sticking down there where they fully have 80 or 90 yards to go. You can't put a premium on that, particularly in field position games like that."
Kluwe has always had the leg to boom the ball. Early in his career, he needed to work on consistency. Once he got that, the Vikings had him focus on directional kicking. And now the concentration is on getting enough hang time to allow his gunner and other coverage men to smother the return man before he has a chance to get a head of steam.
"It's more mindset than anything. It's basically saying we're going to take a 44-yard punt or 43-yard punt and that's what we're going to accept," Kluwe said. "We're just going to make sure that the hang time is high enough on it so our guys can get down on it and cover it and basically try to mitigate any kind of return."
Kluwe is tied for fourth with 18 punts inside the 20-yard line (three punters have 19 inside the 20) and tied for fifth by forcing 12 fair catches. He also ranks first with just 45 return yards allowed among players with 20 or more punts on the season.
But the most impressive stat of all is that the longest punt return the Vikings have allowed this season is only nine yards.
Halfway through the season, Kluwe is making a case to become the Vikings' next first-time Pro Bowler.
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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