Penalties have Zimmer miffed at special teams

The Vikings had two penalties on special teams Sunday, adding to their string of special teams penalties in the last month. Head coach Mike Zimmer had “a long talk” with the team about the penalties.

A day after Mike Zimmer said he was “just about fed up with” the penalties on special teams from young players, there was no “Zimmer being Zimmer” softening of his stance.

The Minnesota Vikings head coach said he had a “long talk” with the team on Monday after squeaking out a 19-13 overtime win at Tampa Bay, despite penalties and other mistakes on special teams that hurt the team in the battle for field position in a close game. Zimmer is considering changes on special teams.

“We had a long talk (on Monday), me and the team, about some of these things that are causing us to not give them the opportunity to win football games,” Zimmer said. “We will continue to look at it. I think they understand the message pretty clear right now. So, we will see.”

But Zimmer has been talking to the team about what causes wins and losses for a few weeks now. Last week, he also said he wasn’t happy with the special teams and the Tampa Bay game gave him a few more bullets for his talks in team meetings.

Antone Exum and Jabari Price, both rookies used on about 50 percent of the special teams plays so far this year, are the biggest culprits. Exum has been called for penalties on special teams three times in the last four weeks – for holding twice and once for an illegal blindside block that got him fined. Price has been called for holding twice in the last four weeks on special teams plays.

Price’s two penalties not only cost the Vikings 20 yards, but it nullified a combined 61 yards they would have had. A grab of the jersey on a Tampa Bay gunner on Sunday wiped out a 42-yard punt return from Marcus Sherels. Instead of the Vikings having the ball at the Tampa Bay 26-yard line, already well within Blair Walsh’s field goal range in a scoreless game in the second quarter, they were brought back to the Vikings 35-yard line and eventually punted.

Zimmer said he addressed the penalties in a team meeting Monday because “I wanted to make sure everybody on the team understood.”

There were other mistakes on special teams in Tampa that were magnified in a tight game. Walsh missed a 56-yard field goal to end the Vikings’ first drive, but given the distance that can hardly be judged too harshly.

The punting game, however, was inconsistent.

In the second quarter, Jeff Locke punted from the Bucs 49-yard line and landed the ball about 7 yards deep into the end zone for a touchback, never giving his coverage a chance to down the ball inside the 10-yard line.

Again in the second quarter, he hit a much better punt from the 50-yard line that hit at the 5-yard line, but gunner Jarius Wright slipped as the ball hit the turf and was unable to keep it from going into the end zone for another touchback.

In the third quarter, he hit a punt from the Bucs 41-yard line that hit at the 1-yard line and bounced into the end zone before his teammates had a chance to cover it for a net 21 yards after the touchback.

“I just think that he didn’t judge the kick. I think he thought it was a little longer than it actually was,” Walsh said. “He was hitting good balls (on Sunday). Just the touch was a little off and I think that’s something that’s easily correctable. You can definitely see his improvement from last year to this year and the way he punts balls.

“He’s such a talented punter. I think with him, you need to just relax and do what he knows how to do. I think the only time he gets himself in trouble is when he presses it. I think you can see with his great punts he can be one of the best in the league. He absolutely can, there’s no doubt about it in his mind and in all of our minds. He’ll be fine and I’m confident in what he’s doing.”

To be sure, Locke also had some good punts on Sunday.

He had a second-quarter punt that was fair caught at the 12-yard line. Toward the end of the second quarter, he also punted one 32 yards to the 15-yard line that Trindon Holliday tried to fair catch but muffed before covering it up. In third quarter, he hit another good one from midfield that was downed at the 8-yard line.

He also made a couple of nice saves on snaps from Cullen Loeffler that weren’t as precise as usual.

“I really think Jeff is a good punter, I really do,” Zimmer said. “I think he is a very, very good punter. I think maybe he tries to be too precise sometimes and I think he probably understands what I’m looking for now, too.”

The Vikings have had three games this year in which they won the yardage battle for penalties and won two of those games, at St. Louis Rams and home against the Atlanta Falcons. Their third win of the season came in overtime Sunday, but the extra period might not have been necessary if not for some mistakes on special teams.

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