Field position is one underrated aspect of a football game that often plays a big role in a team’s success on any given Sunday. Three weeks into the 2015 season the Minnesota Vikings are one of the best teams in the NFL when it comes to field position.
According to Football Insiders, the Vikings offense has a starting field position of the 35-yard line, second in the NFL, and opposing teams’ average starting place is at the 21-yard line, third in the NFL.
A big reason for this success is because the offense, defense and special teams for the Vikings are all working together.
“A term that you guys have heard me say many times is complementary football and it’s a combination of the offense, defense and special teams working together to help our football team field position and that’s our job,” special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. “As a special teams unit on kickoff and punt, we’re supposed to flip the field for the defense, and punt return and kickoff return we’re supposed to be out there making big plays so the offense has a good starting drive start. Our defense has caused some turnovers, which has helped. Our offense has had to drive the length of the field a few times or at least gotten to the 50 – where we can plus-50 punt, we can pin them down inside the 10-yard line. So to me, the last two games especially have been really good complementary football games and I know that’s what Coach (Mike) Zimmer asks of us on special teams and so far guys are doing a good job.”
As far as special teams go, the improved play of punter Jeff Locke in his third season has also been a big reason why the team is doing so well when it comes to pinning opponents deep. Granted, Locke has only attempted 11 punts at this point in the season, but he has been able to put a majority of those inside, or around, the 20-yard line.
“It’s a better start than I had, especially my rookie year,” Locke said. “I’m in a simple, better spot than I’ve been in the past. I kind of know what works, what doesn’t work and now it’s just keeping it simple going forward.”
The Vikings have only had 2 return yards against them so far this season in punt coverage, which is excellent. Priefer admits that they have gotten lucky on occasion, such as the big return the San Francisco 49ers had Week 1 that was called back because of the penalty.
But even penalties can be a sign that the Vikings punt coverage unit is doing a good job. If they are getting down the field in a hurry and playing aggressively, then the opponents are going to be more likely to draw penalties because they are scrambling to stop them.
“We cause penalties by being aggressive, by being physical, by playing fast, by stacking our man as we go down the field, the little things that I think our guys have bought into that I think we’ve done pretty well so far this year,” Priefer said.
That type of aggressive play is what Priefer wants to be seeing out of his players, and it is what Locke likes to see after he punts the ball. That way, even if he has a bad punt, his teammates are down there fast enough to minimize the mess.
“If you look at the film, it’s a lot of the guys around me. We’ve got guys that can cover,” Locke said. “I think that Marcus Sherels is the best gunner in the NFL. Watching him on film compared to other guys, it’s just crazy seeing how he gets off blocks. And then Captain (Munnerlyn) has been filling in there on the other side. We’ve got a bunch of guys just jumping in and doing their part. Even on some of the punts that I want back, like one of the punts the hang time wasn’t what it should have been and Marcus is down there. It was a 2-yard return and he just clips the guy by the ankle, beats his block and just makes a huge play. So I definitely got guys backing me up if I don’t do my job to my fullest. But we’ve had a good working relationship so far in terms of me doing my thing and the guys are getting down there quick.”
The next test for the Vikings is to go to Denver to take on the Broncos and the biggest challenge for Locke will be to control his kicks. Since it is a higher altitude in Denver than it is in Minnesota, footballs tend to fly a lot farther.
Kickers will often try to over-kick the ball in those situations because they know they can kick it farther than normal, but that can actually lead to shanks or other types of bad kicks. Because of that, during the pregame Locke is going to spend extra time experimenting with his kicks and seeing how they fly.
“Coach Priefer’s been telling me all week that a lot of guys go in there and over-kick because they’re so excited about the altitude and seeing the ball fly,” Locke said. “Really the goal pregame there will be to dial in the plus-50 punt because the ball is going to fly further than you’re used to. It’s kind of like dialing in your wedges in golf. You’ve got to make an adjustment to the altitude when you get there.”
How Locke is able to adjust to the altitude will likely play a big role in the Vikings field position throughout the game, but he does already have some experience kicking in high altitude.
While in college at UCLA he traveled to Boulder to play Colorado and was forced to kick in the higher elevation. That experience has made him more comfortable and should help him know what he has to do to control his kicks.