One the Minnesota Vikings’ biggest strengths at the beginning of the season was their special teams. They would consistently put their offense and defense in good position, but lately that has changed. While some aspects of special teams have continued to thrive, other areas have seemed to take a step back. The most notable is their kickoff return coverage.
The Chicago Bears averaged 30.6 yards per return last Sunday against the Vikings with their longest return being 49 yards. The Bears were also able to successfully recover an onside kick to start the second half.
Head coach Mike Zimmer knows his team is going to need to fix those issues moving forward, especially as they continue to make a run at the playoffs.
“We’ve got to shore up some things on special teams,” he said. “We’ve had too many long kickoff returns in the last three weeks. We got the onside kick, so we’ve got to fix those things.”
While Zimmer just brought up the last three games, the team’s struggles in covering kickoffs has really gone all the way back to their Week 11 game when they played the Green Bay Packers on Nov. 22. Since then, four of the five opponents they faced recorded at least one return of over 40 yards and have averaged over 30 yards a return.
This is not something that special teams coordinator Mike Priefer is proud of and he knows that they have to do better, especially since they are a little out of position each time.
“What’s got to happen is we’ve got to cover better,” he said. “We need to fit where we’re supposed to fit. We got to get off blocks better. We got to tackle better. Pure and simple, it’s simple football. Football 101 stuff we’ve been talking about since Day 1.”
Things are not going to be getting any easier for the Vikings’ special teams as they could be going up against Dwayne Harris (questionable/shoulder) of the New York Giants. He is a big-bodied receiver who is deceivingly fast and has the ability to break tackles with ease.
Harris is averaging 28.7 yards a return and already has a touchdown under his belt. Priefer is well aware of the threat that Harris possess and knows his kickoff coverage unit is going to have to be on point if they hope to contain him.
“He’s so strong, he does a great job breaking tackles, so not only do we have to get off blocks but we have to make a tackle,” Priefer said. “We have to hit him, got to wrap him up, we got to swarm to the ball, we have to get as many guys to the point of attack as we possibly can.”
Kickoff coverage is not the only part of the Vikings special teams that struggled against the Bears, though. The kickoff return was not quite where they would have liked it to be either, primarily because of the surprise onside kick they gave up at the start of the second half.
It was something that they have seen Bears kicker Robbie Gould do before and they prepared for it. Unfortunately, though, when the situation presented itself the team was caught off-guard.
“We left early,” Priefer said. “All five guys left early and really it only took one to leave early, the center. They’ve been taught since Day 1 to never leave early and we did. It was a point of emphasis all week. We knew Robbie Gould kicked the exact same surprise onside against Washington two years before. I showed the tape to them on Thursday. We should have reacted better than that.”
Priefer knows that they have the ability to be successful in the return game and in coverage. He has seen it earlier in the season. The team just has to do what the coaches have been preaching since Day 1.