Jeff Locke came under some criticism following Sunday’s game, but special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said Thursday that he doesn’t think it will be a lingering problem or a big concern moving forward, although he prefaced that by saying that Locke needs to improve because as the season goes on at TCF Bank Stadium the conditions will be much worse than the swirling winds the Vikings experienced last Sunday in their 17-3 loss to Detroit.
“He had three really nice punts and he had four that were not as nice,” Priefer said. “They were difficult conditions. Most of his punts were into the wind, where the other guy (Detroit’s Sam Martin) had most of his punts with the wind. It’s just kind of the way it worked out. It will work itself out; it will even itself out as the year goes on. Jeff needs to understand that he is definitely strong enough to kick into any type of wind. He’s got to trust his technique and trust his leg swing and his drop. He’ll correct some of those errors. The three that he hit were really, really nice, big-time punts and the other four we just have to make those mishits 4.3 (second) hang times instead of 3.8 (second) hang times.”
Head coach Mike Zimmer made specific mention of the Vikings’ failings on special teams as being a contributing factor to their recent woes. With the defense playing improved ball, the battle for field position becomes much more vital and the Vikings can’t afford to miss out on opportunities to back opponents up – something that has been a problem not only with erratic punting, but with penalties that have killed the Vikings far too often.
“I think the biggest thing this week he communicated to me would be the penalties and I agree with him 100 percent,” Priefer said. “We are doing some really good things on special teams. We’re covering punts well, we’re kicking off well, we’re kicking field goals well.
“It’s the penalties that are killing us. That’s very unlike our team. Last year, we were penalized 14 times the whole year. This year we’ve been penalized nine or 10 times. That’s where I think, I’m not going to speak for (Zimmer), but coach has mentioned to me that it’s the penalties that hurt us. I think we are playing really well in certain areas, but if we eliminate penalties we will get even better.”
One of the culprits on the penalty situation is Antone Exum, who had two penalties called on him on consecutive punts last week. Priefer has let the players know that penalties won’t be viewed as being acceptable and, just as players get replaced on offense and defense, the same will apply for special teamers. The message has been clear – perform at a high level or be in jeopardy of being benched.
“I’ve told those guys if they’re a repeat offender they’re in danger in being off the core teams,” Priefer said. “We’ve got to be able to trust the guys that are out there that they’re not going to get penalized. I like what Antone is doing – he’s playing hard, he prepares hard. He’s a rookie, he’s overzealous at times, but if we tone that down we will be fine.”
Exum said he doesn’t feel threatened with his role on special teams, but he realizes the penalties need to stop.
“You can’t have penalties in any phase of the game. That’s something that I have looked at, we’ll adjust and we’ll get better at,” Exum said. “I do think both of the calls were kind of tick-tacky, which me and coach have talked about. But they were called; it puts the team in a bad situation. Those are things that I’ll adjust and get better at.” The Vikings have a lot of young players on their special teams, which isn’t unusual anywhere in the NFL. A lot of rookies and undrafted free agent types stick on a 53-man roster because they bring something special to the table in that regard. The truth is that young players tend to make mistakes and they get magnified on special teams when a play goes good or bad.
Priefer said it’s his job to make sure that the young players are prepared, but he expects them to be ready to take what they’re learning on the practice field and in film study to game day. But having young players is part and parcel to the job.
“It’s like that every year,” Priefer said. “We deal with young guys every year. I’m not going to use the young guys as an excuse. I think we just need to do a better job of coaching it up and coaching the techniques and making sure when they get in those certain situation they don’t pull the trigger in terms of getting that penalty.”
As things currently stand, the Vikings are looking to make significant improvements on offense, defense and special teams. While the job of the coverage and return teams rarely are viewed as vital to team success, those who know the ins and outs of the game will attest that special teams can be as critical as either of the other two phases and Priefer has put his players on notice – improve against Buffalo or there will be changes coming.