“The best kicker in the NFL,” according to Minnesota Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, and perhaps the best kickoff returner in the NFL will be directed to approach the same play differently this year, depending on the situation, because of a new rule.
The NFL is always tweaking the rules surrounding kickoffs and this year one of the changes was moving the spot of the ball following a touchback to the 25-yard line instead of the 20. That means more decision-making for how Blair Walsh should approach his kickoffs and how Cordarrelle Patterson should approach his returns when the ball is kicked deep into the end zone.
“If it’s a great returner, we’re going against – Ameer Abdullah, an outstanding returner for Detroit – and it’s early in the game, you might want to put it back in the end zone, either at Detroit or our place,” Priefer said. “But if it’s a situation where we got to get the ball back and we want to pin them deep, we use our timeouts, they kicked it, they get bad field position, we would get a good return. Go down, kick it again, with a field goal, we might put it high and shorter. There’s going to be a lot of different strategy that’s involved. It’s going to be fun.”
Walsh was third in the NFL last year among kickers with at least 10 kickoffs, averaging 65.7 yards on his kickoffs despite playing half of his games in the often blustery and cold conditions of TCF Bank Stadium. He was tied for 10th with 47 touchbacks, but it isn’t always the intent for him to kick it deep and force a touchback.
At times, the Vikings have believed they could stop a returner inside the 20-yard line. A higher, shorter kick could become more prevalent now with the touchback being spotted at the 25-yard line.
“He’s pretty good. We worked a lot in the spring,” Priefer said of Walsh’s ability on higher kicks. “… It’s something he takes a lot of pride in. He knows he’s not just a field goal kicker, he’s a very good kicker specialist as well.”
On the Vikings’ side of returns, Patterson finished first in the NFL among those who returned at least 10 kicks, with a 31.8-yard average, and tied his own franchise record from 2013 with two returns for touchdowns, leading the NFL there, too.
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Even if he doesn’t get all the way to the end zone, Patterson’s six returns of 40 yards or more led the NFL (the next closest was Abdullah with four).
Patterson was often given the green light to return any kick, but with teams getting five more yards of field position on a touchback, the decision of whether or not he should return a deep kick could come down to the situation of the game.
So how will they decide when to give him the green light for a return he fields deep in the end zone?
“Beginning the game, eight yards deep, really good hang time, we don’t want to start out at the 12. If we don’t get a good return, we’ll take a knee at about the 25,” Priefer said, referring to a touchback. “But if we’re down by 10 with minutes to go in the game, we might say let’s go because he has the ability to score a 109-yard touchdown. Pick and choose our spots and be smart about it field position-wise. Whatever helps our football team, we’re going to go from there.”