The biggest question heading into Sunday's game with Detroit is what role (if any) Percy Harvin will play for the Vikings. Given that he was still limping badly through the locker room Thursday afternoon, signs don't look good. Most of the discussion centers on how the Vikings offense will perform without its top receiving threat, but perhaps the bigger question is how the Vikings will respond in the return game?
Harvin has been the most dynamic kick returner in the NFL this year and, even if he somehow does play on offense, the odds of him returning kickoffs are even more remote. If that's the case, Marcus Sherels will find himself front and center in the return game – both on kickoffs and punts.
Sherels is the primary punt returner for the Vikings and, prior to this year, split time with Harvin on kick returns because the team wanted to save Harvin's explosiveness for the offense. That has changed this year, as Harvin has been given almost every kickoff opportunity, but, when he was injured last week, Sherels took over and, if Harvin can't go, Sherels will once again be the No. 1 guy this week.
Sherels is taking the kickoffs in practice, but that isn't all that unusual during mid-week preparation. He is ready to step in if and when he's needed, but admits that role will depend solely on the health of Harvin's sprained left ankle.
"I'm not sure what Percy's status is going to be, but if they call my number I'll be ready to go," Sherels said. "I'm practicing on returns now, but I think it will all depend on whether or not Percy plays. All I can do at this point is be ready if I'm needed."
Not having Harvin in the return game may be just as important as missing him from the offense. In the first meeting with the Lions at Ford Field, the Vikings offense sputtered, but they won the game due in large part to Harvin's 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to start the game and Sherels 77-yard punt return for a touchdown to ice the game away.
It wasn't the first time Detroit had struggled in kick/punt coverage. The week before against Tennessee, the Lions gave up a punt and kickoff for touchdowns as well. However, Sherels said that film study has shown the Lions have made changes on their special teams and have been much better since a dreadful September.
"They've improved because they've moved a couple of new faces onto their special teams," he said. "I don't know if that was because of us or not, but they had some problems with coverage that really hurt them and they addressed it. They're looking a lot better now than they did back in September."
The life of the return man is frenetic at best. Teams prepare for a play to go a certain direction or with the intention of exploiting a perceived weakness in the coverage team, but a kick to the sideline, a short kick or a high kick can eliminate all those plans in an instant, making a return depend on the quick-twitch skills of the return man while the other 10 players try to account for their man in a given situation.
"You have to take into account a lot of things," Sherels said. "A lot depends on our scheme. Not all teams run the same scheme, so it's hard to say that if they do this on a specific play we'll try to exploit that. We just focus on all our guys doing their own job on every play. Kicks and punts don't pop for touchdowns that often. The goal is to get as much out of each one as you possibly can. You can't count on taking a punt 80 yards for a touchdown every time or 105 yards on a kickoff. They just don't happen that often."
More times than not, it is the improvisational skills and innate feel for where an opening will come that makes a successful return man. It's rare when there are massive alleys to run through. More times than not, it's having a feel for when to bounce a return inside or outside that makes all the difference.
"That happens a lot," Sherels said. "You can call a return to the right and if he kicks it left or shanks it, all that goes out the window. You can be running one way and see a hole opening behind you and cut it off. There's a lot of improv involved."
When a return man is freelancing it can have a huge upside as well as a big downside, depending on how it plays out. Sherels said many is the time when special teams coach Mike Priefer is mad that he takes chances, but the anger vanishes when it works.
"I think that happened the last time we played Detroit," Sherels said. "I think when I caught it, Coach Priefer is going, ‘No, no, no!' But when I broke it, he was going, ‘Yes, yes, yes!' On plays like that, you have to trust your instincts that you're doing the right thing."
Much of the chatter Sunday as it pertains to Harvin will be his missing role in the offense if the team opts to sit him – which is more than a realistic possibility given that the Vikings will have their bye week following Sunday's game. However, his ability to make big plays in the kick return game might be missed just as much. If he can't go, Sherels realizes that he will be the man in the spotlight and, if that happens, he intends to make the most of it.
"When you're on punt or kick returns, you're the most important man on the field for that play," Sherels said. "If Percy can't go and we need somebody to step in, I'm ready to be that guy for us."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.