At the beginning of the season, the Minnesota Vikings special teams struggled in multiple games, especially in the return games. There would be missed blocks and penalties in most of the games, and some of that could have been due to the inexperience on the team. There was a lot of turnover on the Vikings roster for special teams this year, and a lot of rookies or first-year players were expected to make impacts.
It is a big change for rookies when they come into the NFL, especially for the ones drafted in later rounds – who are the ones that get most of their playing time on special teams – as they might not be as pro-ready as players drafted in the first couple rounds.
“Most definitely,” said Jabari Price when asked if there was a learning curve. “Especially somebody coming out of college or from another team, it’s not like your typical college system where you just run down and freelance. You have leverage to maintain, you have assignments, you have to play for the guys next to you. It’s not just playing for yourself. You have to do your one-eleventh out there and do your job and then get off and do more and make the play. So it’s definitely more than what they ask for in college.”
It has been a slow start for the return game this year, especially after they were able to score three touchdowns last year – two kickoff returns and one punt return. The improvement seems to be coming in that area of the special teams as of late, and last week against Detroit really showed just how close they are getting to returning to last year’s form.
In the fourth quarter of the game Cordarrelle Patterson had a 51-yard kickoff return, and Marcus Sherels had a 35-yard punt return in the first quarter.
“It was a sigh of relief, but we can’t be complacent with that, though,” Price said. “Like I said, we want to complement the offense and put the offense in the best chance to win. It was a sigh of relief since we haven’t broke one since the Atlanta game. Definitely proud of that, but we want to build on that going into Miami.”
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer will not give them the chance to be complacent with those returns. Players say Priefer will not tell the players they did a good job because he always wants to score when the return team – whether it is kickoff or punt return – is on the field.
It is that mentality that has helped push the young players into developing the way they have, and a lot of the young guys are starting to get the same mindset as Priefer. They want to score every time they take the field and aren’t satisfied with a long return unless it goes the distance.
“(Priefer) always wants us to score, and we do too,” said Antone Exum Jr. “When we see returns on film we call them ‘what if returns’ – what if we would have got this block and we could have possibly scored here, add 30, 40, 50 more yards here. That’s frustrating for us. We know that we are heading in the right direction because we are getting pretty good returns, but we are always striving to score every time we touch the field on punt returns and kick returns.
“(Priefer) doesn’t allow you think anything different. He drills that in our head, and he preaches it at every meeting. And that’s just being competitors; like me, myself, I don’t want to be the guy that’s giving up, missing a block or anything preventing us from scoring a touchdown. So I go out there and try to give it my all every time.”
Like every other aspect of football, it is important to have the young guys get a lot of reps in order to improve their game play and get more comfortable in the system. That can be difficult to do, as there are always fewer special teams plays in games, and in practice, as compared to offensive and defensive plays.
The offense has averaged 64 plays a game this season, the defense 67. Meanwhile, special teams have averaged 28 plays per game.
“I mean special teams is one of those things where the more reps you get the better you are going to become at it,” Exum said. “So the more we get to practice, and the more game reps we get on special teams, the better, hopefully, we’ll get.”
And they have been getting better. Their play on the field has been showing it, and a lot of players attribute that to the young guys finally settling down and getting comfortable in their roles.
“I mean, a lot of inexperience, and a lot of guys that just – in the NFL it just takes experience,” said Adam Thielen. “And the coaches are doing a good job at putting us in a good position, and guys are just going out there and playing instead of thinking.”
As the players get comfortable and start doing things instinctively, instead of always trying to think about what is going to happen next, big plays will continue to happen. But all the special teams players are itching to get that first touchdown out of the way, and it is worse for the first-year players.
They saw that the Vikings would score touchdowns on special teams last season, and now they have not scored any this season. That’s something they are going to try their hardest to make happen with only two games left to go in the season.
“It’s definitely frustrating for me,” Price said. “Before I got here they were scoring five touchdowns and doing all that last year. Then when I get here I see a long one against Atlanta, I see a long one against Detroit, and I haven’t gotten to see a touchdown yet. So I’m definitely taking it personally. It’s definitely kind of teasing me. Again, that’s something I definitely want to see in the upcoming weeks.”
Vikings rookies anxious to see return TDs
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