Since Mike Priefer joined the Minnesota Vikings in 2011, the team has had one of the most explosive special teams in the NFL. He prides himself on having a unit that is aggressive and creates big-play opportunities on a regular basis. It has shown, especially in the kick return game, when he lets his players return kickoffs from seven or eight yards deep in the end zone on a regular basis.
Even though he wants to remain aggressive in the return game, he might start to dial it back this season so the offense can start at the 20-yard line more instead of behind it.
“We’re a very aggressive team. We always have been, whether we’ve had Percy Harvin or Cordarrelle Patterson back there,” Priefer said. “We feel like we can make a big play any time we have that opportunity. I think when it’s seven or eight yards deep and it’s real, real high or if it’s in one corner or the other, that’s when we should take a knee, and we haven’t in the past. That’s where we changed our philosophy a little bit, but we’re still going to be an aggressive team on kickoff return to help our offense get great field position or give our guys a chance to score.”
The special teams coordinator has been pleased with what he has seen from his players so far this offseason. He believes they have won in most aspects of the special teams except for one – kickoff return. An area where they have found a lot of success in the past, they now appear to be struggling.
Priefer isn’t worried, though, and believes it is just an easy fix.
“I think it’s more timing than anything,” he said. “The front-line blocking has been OK, a couple misses there the other night. The back line and the returner, the timing is off. It’s not the returner; it’s more the back line and wedge guys, we call them the back line, the timing is not quite where it needs to be. So we worked on it yesterday, going to work on it tomorrow and continue getting better.”
One thing that ties into the trouble with timing is that the team is cycling a lot of different players in as kickoff returners to try and give as many players as possible a chance to make the team. Even if they don’t make the Vikings’ 53-man roster, Priefer wants to give these players the best chance he can to make some other team’s final roster.
“DuJuan Harris was Green Bay’s kick off returner; I want to give him an opportunity,” he said. “Joe Banyard’s back there because he’s trying to make this football team; I want to give him an opportunity. Marcus Sherels will more than likely be our (backup) kickoff returner – if everything works according to what I would like obviously – but he’s our good punt returner and he’s an excellent backup kickoff returner and he can play halfback on kickoff return team because he’s an effective blocker as well, no matter what his size is. We’ve got guys back there that could play returner or halfback and we’re trying to prepare them to do both.”
Even though they have been struggling some returning kickoffs, the Vikings have been very good at returning punts. Whether it is Stefon Diggs doing the returning or Sherels, they both seem to get at least one good return a game. Granted, it is only two preseason games into the season, but this aspect of the Vikings’ special teams appears to be off to a fast start.
Priefer is a little wary of this early success, though, because he feels it is a product of them taking advantage of it being early in the preseason and isn’t sure it is something that will hold up. They aren’t worrying about any fake punts at the moment, so they are able to keep two guys out wide to the left and right to cover both the gunners. This then allows the returner more time to catch the ball cleanly and get up field.
As the preseason goes on and they enter into the regular season, they are more often going to have to keep more players in the box to prevent fake punts. That means the gunners will be able to get downfield faster, thus making things more difficult for the return man.
“Fourth-and-short I can’t have six in the box. They could fake it any time and obviously we’re out there to defend against the fake first, or any broken formation or whatever the case may be, then from there hope to get a big return,” Priefer said. “We’ve been working a lot of technique right now, assuming the other team’s not going to fake a punt this early in the preseason, and as we go on in the rest of preseason into the regular season we have to prepare for those type of situations and we won’t be able to double vice the gunners every time, so take it with a grain of salt.”
That philosophy change is likely to come either this week or next week, so expect the big returns to be reduced sometime soon. Granted, there will still be electrifying plays in the return game, just not as often as they have been lately.
Along with the change in philosophy, the player the Vikings choose to return punts could also play a big role in how the team does. There is a competition between Sherels and Diggs for the starting job and it is a competition that will likely go through the preseason.
Diggs is often thought of as the more explosive player while Sherels more of a possession guy, but that is not how Priefer sees it.
“I wouldn’t describe Marcus as a sure-handed possession guy at all,” he said. “He is that, but he’s much more than that. He’s very explosive. I don’t know what his career average is, but I think it might be the most in our team’s history; he’s No. 1. He’s a very explosive returner as well. Stefon has had the benefit of some really good blocking and he’s done a great job hitting the seams. Marcus has had two pretty explosive returns himself without the benefit of as much blocking. So they are very similar in that they’re quick, shifty and they’re both explosive. And I think it’s a great battle so far.”
At the moment, it appears to be Sherels’ job to lose, but Diggs is gaining ground in a hurry. With both of them having the ability to break one for a big play on any given punt, that aspect of the return game appears to be set.
The big question for the remainder of the offseason is the kickoff return game and how Patterson performs. He exploded onto the scene his rookie year, but faded off last year as teams opted to kick it short of him. Can he become the league’s best returner again or will the team’s inconsistencies continue to hurt his play?
Will Vikings scale back special teams?
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