The Minnesota Vikings special teams unit has been one of the team’s strengths over the course of the season. Every game they seem to put the offense and defense in good field position and make a big play with the punt return unit, but the one thing that was seemingly missing for the first half of the season was big plays in the kickoff return game.
It might be hard to imagine that with Cordarrelle Patterson returning kicks, but he didn’t have much of an impact through the first nine weeks of the season, but that all changed last Sunday when he returned a kickoff for a touchdown against the Oakland Raiders.
He was able to take the return to the end zone without a single defender laying a hand on him, which is something special teams coordinator Mike Priefer had been preaching. A couple weeks prior, Priefer talked about needing to improve the blocking on the kickoff returns and the team responded.
“We had everything there, it’s just little mistakes, one here one there,” said special teams contributor Scott Crichton, a second-year defensive end. “So it was just little mental mistakes and all we had to do was just fix that. We knew we were bound for a big return.”
One of the hardest things about having a good special teams unit year in and year out is the inconsistency of players. Teams rarely use their key players on special teams and it just so happens that those are the players that tend to stick with teams for long periods of time.
Instead, special teams is usually filled with the guys whom teams will shuffle in and out, either through the draft, trades or free agency every year, making it difficult to keep a unit intact from season to season. Priefer believes that played a bit of a role in the inconsistencies in the return game earlier in the season; they just needed to gain more experience.
“I think the guys that are out there, they’re gaining more experience,” he said. “They’re gaining more confidence and as long as we keep those same blockers out there we’ll have a better chance because they’re gaining that experience. And the techniques they’re using in practice, although it’s not game speed, when they get reps at game speed it really helps them with their techniques, if that makes sense, because we’re doing a good job in practice but games are a whole ’nother animal. So the more opportunities to get in games the more experience they’ll get and the better they’ll get at those techniques.”
Another thing that helps them be more comfortable out on the field, though, is having a guy like Patterson returning the ball behind them. The other 10 players blocking in front of him know that they don’t have to be perfect with a guy like Patterson returning kicks because he has the ability to do so much on his own.
His presence does not make the rest of the return unit relaxed, but it allows them not to panic. They know that Patterson can handle himself and make a guy miss if one gets through, so having that safety net just allows them to not worry about being perfect and instead focus on the job at hand.
“It gives us a lot of lead room because sometimes we miss a block but we know they can make people miss,” Crichton said of his returners. “So instead of just keep going for that same person we just go find someone else and we know they’ll make them miss right away. We just trust our returners to do that and I’m pretty sure they trust us to block for them, so I think we’re pretty good.”
The special teams players were glad they were finally able to have a big game returning kickoffs, but they know they cannot be satisfied yet. There is still plenty they need to improve on, but Patterson’s big return was a place to start.
“That was really great for us, but we’ve got to keep it consistent,” Crichton said. “We can’t just have a touchdown here and then a bunch of tackles inside the 20 the next game. So the big thing is consistency in all phases of special teams.”