Sometimes numbers don’t tell the entire story on a player’s effectiveness on the field. Vikings punter Jeff Locke can attest to that.
To look at Locke’s numbers, it would seem as though he is one of the least effective punters in the league. His 42.4-yard punting average is 29th in the NFL. But his net punting average – the number arrived at when returns and touchbacks are factored in – is at 40.0, which ranks 17th in the league.
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer has preached on getting height on punts to allow the coverage unit to get down the field and prevent the potential for a game-breaking return. To date, that has worked out extremely well for the Vikings and Locke doesn’t care about half the numbers that the NFL uses to rank punters.
“The net average definitely matters to me, but not so much the gross average,” Locke said. “The way that I’ve been taught by Coach Priefer, we don’t focus on gross average. We really don’t look at that as something we’re trying to achieve. I never go into a game saying I want to punt the ball 50 yards.”
The results to date have been nothing short of amazing. Prior to last week, through their first four games, the Vikings had allowed opponents to average less than 1 yard on returns. Even with a couple of modest returns last week by Kansas City, the Vikings still lead the league by a wide margin in lack of return yards.
Locke has punted 20 times this year. Of those, nine have resulted in fair catches and four more have either gone out of bounds or been covered downfield by Vikings special teams players. Of his 20 punts, only seven have been returned for a total of 28 yards – four yards per return.
“It’s all about hang time,” Locke said. “When you’re focused on just punting the ball as far as you can, then you just keep trying to just kick it farther. You need the hang time to match or else you can out-punt your coverage guys. We really preach on not doing that. Every once and a while a ball gets away from me and I hit it a little too far for the hang time. With as good as the returners are for every team in the league, you’ve got to have decent hang time with each kick to let guys get down there.”
One of the reasons Locke’s punting average has been lower than most is that he has rarely been called on to boom one from deep in his own territory. The Vikings have consistently done well in terms of starting field position for the offense and more times than not, when he has had to punt, it has been either near midfield or in the opponent’s territory.
Often times, the result has been Locke trying to punt with the intention of pinning an opponent inside its own 20-yard line, optimally inside its own 10-yard-line. He has become quite adept at that facet of the game.
“Some of it has been the field position because our offense has been moving the ball,” Locke said. “I’ve almost never had to punt being backed way up at all this season. When you’re at about midfield, your goal is to try to pin them inside their 20. The goal then is to make sure you don’t get a touchback and win the battle of field position.”
The new-school way of punting has all but eliminated the directional kick unless it is by design because coverage is overloaded on one side. The days of the coffin corner kick are over. Punters these days have increasingly adopted the Australian style of punting, because there is so much more that is within a punter’s control.
“People don’t angle kick much anymore because there are too many factors that can come in,” Locke said. “There is so much more room for error, like the wind picking it up or the ball fading more than you want. If you’re two or three degrees off, it can be a 10-yard difference on the field. Slowly over the last 10 years, a lot more guys are going to the Aussie punt because you have so much more control.”
With a lot of focus being spent on the Vikings offense and defense, the punting game has quietly done its job to help the team win games, especially in terms of not giving up the big punt return that could be the difference between winning and losing.
“Our goal is to try to pin teams deep and force them go a long distance if they’re going to score on us,” Locke said. “It’s a philosophy Coach Priefer believes in and one that I agree with. We’ve been able to do that pretty well and, if we can keep it up, we give our team a better chance of winning every game.”