On a perfect Saturday night for football last weekend, the Minnesota Vikings showed several positives.
Teddy Bridgewater looked sharp, hitting on deep passes to Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, and intermediate passes that Laquon Treadwell pulled in with strong hands. Back then, before the Bengals game, there was little concern about the defense.
But one of the underrated aspects of what stood last Saturday was the consistency of strong punts from Jeff Locke. He has been questioned considerably, and the statistics say that is warranted. However, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer was very pleased with Locke’s punts at the night practice last week.
So was Locke.
“Probably easily the best Saturday scrimmage I’ve had as a Viking down here in Mankato,” Locke said.
“I’ve always known what a good punt feels like and I’ve had good punts in scrimmages, but I think it was just the consistency. It was kind of each and every punt, back to back to back, was solid, where in the past it’s been one good one, two OK, one good one. So I think it’s just being able to stack them together now, which is the big difference.”
The inconsistency reared its head and cost the Vikings a week later. Locke had been having a great night pinning opponents inside the 20-yard line, doing it four times without a touchback. But when given most of the field to work with, he hit a 61-yarder that was returned 80 yards for a touchdown in the preseason opener.
We’ll let head coach Mike Zimmer explain.
“We kicked it too far, number one. We don’t want to kick it 65 yards. So that wasn’t a good punt. I know everybody thinks it’s a great punt, but it wasn’t,” Zimmer said after Friday night’s game. “And then we missed a bunch of tackles. The first guy got – it was close to being kind of hit in the back – and then we missed a bunch of tackles.”
So what was Locke aiming for? Something that he did so well the previous Saturday night in Blakeslee Stadium. On punts that can use most of the field, there is a surprising look that Locke and Priefer are hoping to accomplish on long punts – wobble.
“Wobble adds hang time. That’s one of the things,” Locke said. “Depending on conditions, you want the ball to be tight or you want the ball to wobble. When I have the wind at my back, you want a wobbly ball. You want a ball that goes up and starts wobbling because then it’s going to hang more for your guys. It’s not like a quarterback who wants that tight spiral all the time. We don’t always want that.”
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Priefer said a little wobble on the ball can add as much as a half second in hang time, and that makes all the difference in the coverage getting there and pinning in the returner.
“When I see a ball go up tight and it gets to the apex and starts to wobble, I’m like, ‘Yes! That’s perfect!’ That’s going to hang on the way down and give my guys more time to get down there,” Locke said.
“It’s funny. I talk to fans sometimes and they’re like, ‘Well, it didn’t spiral and turn over.’ We’re not always looking for that. Sometimes you want the wobble; sometimes you want one that kind of tails. It’s very interesting how punting goes.”
Up until that fourth-quarter return for a touchdown, Locke was having another good outing on Friday. But consistency is the key and he knows it.
“We’re still working. We still have over a month until the first game, so we’re going to keep working on it,” he said earlier this week. “But I guess if I look back at the charts the last couple times I’ve punted, it’s less and less mis-hits and more consistent every single time. That’s really what we’re going for – you want to work toward really being a machine so when you’re in the game it’s just another punt.”