Ever so slowly, the Minnesota Vikings are starting to involve Cordarrelle Patterson more on offense, but they appear to have supreme confidence in him on kickoff returns.
While Patterson is nowhere to be found in the top receivers in the NFL, he is the league leader in kickoff return average, despite facing the NFL's top kick coverage unit, the Pittsburgh Steelers, on Sunday.
Patterson is averaging 33.8 yards per return, including a 105-yard return for a touchdown. The first-round draft pick has no fear of bringing a kick out from deep in the end zone.
"We do have a lot of trust in him for sure. We have some parameters on when he can bring it out and when he doesn't, but it's not by yards," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said Tuesday. "We think he can return one 109 yards, 108 yards – he's done 105 yards. So we trust his judgment. We do have some things we talk about when the ball is kicked when he has to not return it. But he's made good decisions up to this point."
The Vikings knew he would get some opportunities in London because they were playing at outdoor Wembley Stadium and facing the Steelers, whose kicker, Shaun Suisham, had only three touchbacks entering Sunday's game.
Patterson returned five of Suisham's kickoffs for a 28.8-yard average, including a 42-yarder.
He brought out two kicks from 8 yards deep into the end zone, two from 6 yards deep and returned another from the 4-yard line.
"We knew going into this game that we were going to have a lot of return possibilities. They had not had a lot of touchbacks so we went into it with an aggressive mentality," Frazier said. "It was good to see. We were so close to breaking a couple of those, so we want him to maintain that aggressive attitude."
Patterson's aggressiveness and success dropped the Steelers from the top kick coverage team to sixth in the league, and it also vaulted him into the No. 1 spot for return average. He entered the game second to Chicago's Devin Hester, who had a 38.3-yard return average thanks to two returns of more than 70 yards when he faced the Vikings.
Hester had six returns against the Detroit Lions and his average fell to 32.4 yards. After Patterson's five returns against the Steelers, he is now averaging 33.8 yards.
Slowly, Patterson's time on offense is also increasing. After starting with back-to-back games in which he was on the field for only 9 percent of the team's offensive plays, on Sunday that increased to 25 percent of the offensive plays.
Still, he was targeted only twice. Once was a deep shot that was poorly thrown and Patterson turned into a defensive back that knocked the ball loose to help QB Matt Cassel avoid an interception. The other was a bubble screen in which Patterson out-muscled the defense for 9 hard yards.
"He is great with the ball in his hands. The problem is he's behind a guy that's No. 4 in the league in average yards per catch, and Jerome's playing at an extremely high level," QB Christian Ponder said two week ago, referencing Jerome Simpson. "But we want to continue to get Cordarrelle involved and he's made plays for us. We're going to keep getting him out there and put the ball in his hands. We see what he did in the return game and a couple of the screens that he has."
Since then, Simpson has fallen into an eight-place tie with Greg Jennings in the NFL for average yards per catch (18.0) among receivers with at least 10 receptions.
Simpson remains the Vikings' leading receiver in targets (32), receptions (19) and yards (342). Patterson has been targeted only nine times for six receptions and 82 yards.
Meanwhile, he remains publicly patient with his offensive opportunities and aggressively efficient in the return game.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Aggressive Patterson claims NFL's top spot
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