The Minnesota Vikings punt return unit has been one of their best features the past couple weeks. Two weeks ago against the Chicago Bears, return man Marcus Sherels was able to take a punt back 65 yards for a touchdown untouched, and last week against the St. Louis Rams he returned a punt for 26 yards in overtime that helped set up the game-winning field goal.
Having a return man like Sherels lining up to receive the punts gives all the players on the return unit an extra boost of confidence. But wide receiver Adam Thielen also gives a lot of credit to the coaching staff, especially special teams coordinator Mike Priefer.
“I guess coach is putting us in the right position and then guys believing in what they’re teaching us and doing the techniques,” he said. “Then obviously having a good returner helps a ton and a good punter too.”
The special teams feel as though their streak of good punt returns could continue this weekend against the Oakland Raiders because the Raiders have a young punter with a big leg. A big leg can mean a lot of hang time, which is bad for the return unit, but it can also lead to the punter out-kicking his coverage, which is good for the return unit.
Because Marquette King is still a young player, in just his fourth year in the NFL, he still has a tendency to be inconsistent from time to time. If he makes a mistake during the game, the Vikings know they need to be able to capitalize on it.
“We know that if they do out-kick the coverage that we’re going to have to make a play out of it,” Thielen said. “It’s not just this week particularly. We know he has a big leg, but that could be tough for us, too – if he’s putting it up in the air with high hang time – but we’re always ready for that.”
More often than not the Raiders’ punt coverage has been on par this season, though. They have yet to allow a punt return for a touchdown and the longest return against them through their first eight games has been for 18 yards. As a whole, teams are averaging just 5.0 yards a return against them.
Not only is that because of King’s big leg, but because the Raiders punt coverage unit is filled with players who are able to get down the field in a hurry.
“The problem with Oakland,” Priefer said, “they’re just so fast across the board that if we don’t hold their interior guys – the gunners alone are fast – but if we can’t do a great job on the interior players, then we won’t have a chance.”
All that speed on Oakland’s special teams makes play-calling even more difficult for Priefer, who said he already gets a headache after games because of the amount of thinking he has to do. Depending on situations in games, he needs to decide if he is rushing players, trying to block the punt, going for a big return or something else entirely. When you add the Raiders’ speed to that equation, things only get more complicated.
“I start thinking about it as soon as we kick off or punt and the opposing team has it. I go by field position,” Priefer said. “I start thinking about it on first down, if we stop them here, here are the winds, what are the calls, what have we done successfully today or if it’s the first punt return of the game, what’s my game plan going in, especially with the way that the winds are going? That’s why I have a massive headache after every game because I have to think every play because you have got to kind of think out of the box a little bit and put yourself in the situation as we move down the field or when we pin them deep.”
Even though there are a great deal of variables that go into calling plays for punt returns, Thielen said that they normally have a good idea what is going to happen when they are taking the field. Players are often on the same page as their coaching staff and the results have shown on the field.
“We have an idea what we’re going to do going into the game,” Thielen said. “We have certain stuff that we’re going to do. We don’t know what we’re going to run, we have a lot of things up so we don’t know exactly what we’re going to run, but we’re prepared for anything that he calls.”
The Vikings punt return unit knows that they will have their work cut out for them this weekend when they take on the Raiders, but if things go right for them there could be a couple opportunities for them to take advantage.