Ever since Devin Hester showed up in Chicago, the special teams advantage in the return game has been decidedly in the favor of the Bears. With Hester no longer terrorizing the Vikings, that check mark that has been part of determining an advantage in a game is no longer automatically on Chicago’s side of the ledger.
For the first time, the Vikings might get the check mark. But, as they are wont to say in Chicago, “Not so fast, my friend.”
Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer hasn’t seen the same dynamic this year from Cordarrelle Patterson and Marcus Sherels that he saw last year.
Priefer addressed both of them Thursday at his weekly press conference, saying that, in the case of Patterson, once bitten, twice shy has become the mantra of opponents. That has resulted in Patterson bringing kicks back from 8 or 9 yards deep in the end zone with 10½ guys set on tackling him and bearing down with a 60-yard head of steam.
“With Cordarrelle, people aren’t kicking to us as much as they have in the past when he was a younger returner in the first few games last year and then people started kicking away from him,” Priefer said. “That’s going to limit the opportunities, number one. Number two, there have been a lot of touchbacks this year. Number three, he had a huge return in the first Green Bay game, early in the game, that was called back because of penalty.”
The proof is in the numbers when it pertains to teams saying, “Thanks, but no thanks” as it pertains to Patterson. Last year, he led the NFL with a 32.4-yard return average on 43 chances – taking two to the house, including a 109-yard, 31-inch return for a score that will keep him in the NFL record books for eternity. Other teams opted out and, by season’s end last year, 12 other Vikings were credited with kickoff return yards, because opposing special teams coordinators weren’t about to give Patterson a chance for a third return for touchdown.
This year, Patterson is averaging 24.5 yards, a significant drop from his rookie season. The same is true with Sherels.
Last year, buoyed by an 86-yard touchdown return, Sherels averaged 15.2 yards on the 22 of 49 punts hit his way that he chose to return rather than call a fair catch.
In his case, it’s been a case of bad luck. Really bad luck. Sherels has had some big returns, but the official numbers say he has returned 20 of the 36 punts launched in his direction and is averaging 8.5 yards per return with a long of 24 yards.
Unlike Patterson, Sherels has done his job, but his is a laundry problem. Yellow flags seem to follow him.
“Marcus has had three or four really nice returns, explosive returns, that were called back because of penalties,” Priefer added. “Those were the points of emphasis and they have been all year, especially since we started having those penalties earlier in the year. That’s been our biggest point of emphasis is playing penalty-free football, playing great fundamental football, using our schemes to our advantage, maybe Cordarrelle making some better decisions to bring it out of the end zone or not out of the end zone. We have to improve there as well.”
With the Vikings optimistic about their own chances to reverse the curse of the check mark, the second chorus of “Not so fast, my friend” has reared its ugly head.
Chris Williams has taken on the “witness protection name” of someone replacing a legend like Hester. Those are big shoes to fill. Hester is gone, but not forgotten in Chicago.
Or forgotten by Priefer.
In preparing for Chicago, all he had to do was dust off the game plan for Atlanta, where Hester currently resides. Williams may not be known to Vikings fans, but he is averaging 25.6 yards per kick return, including a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
Williams isn’t Hester, but the belief at Winter Park is that he has shown enough on kick returns that he may well be the Hester double-trouble on punt returns. Thanks to a generous Bears defense, Chicago punt returns have been irrelevant – 17 in nine games. Of those, 14 came down in the arms of Santonio Holmes, who was cut this week.
Given the burn marks that Priefer has endured with Hester, they’re viewing Williams as Devin 2.0.
“When we prepared for Atlanta it was like preparing for Chicago,” Priefer said. “They are still a very well-coached team. Obviously, nobody is Devin Hester, but Chris Williams is a viable threat. I showed our guys all of his punt returns for touchdowns that he had in 2012, I believe it was for Hamilton (of the CFL). The film was kind of grainy but they could tell. He’s a little guy, he’s hard to find on kickoff returns when we’re covering kickoffs. He can hit the seam so fast that you won’t even see him. We’ve got to do a great job of getting off blocks, we’ve got to do a great job of playing fast and physical, we’ve got to do a great job of using our hands and finding the ball. Now he’s going to be their punt returner. I haven’t heard any word, but I assume that’s why they let Santonio Holmes go. So he’s a very viable threat.”
Offense and defense will get the headlines Sunday. But maybe, just maybe, the special teams check mark might be the biggest one of all three. The team that gets the check mark is more likely to get the “W.”
But Priefer has issued the challenge to his special teams.
“Right now we’re playing at an average level and that’s, to me, unacceptable,” he said. “Going forward, that’s my challenge to our guys, that’s my challenge to myself to make sure that game-plan-wise, fundamentally, technique-wise that we’re doing the things necessary to play at a higher level.”