It seems like every couple years the kicking game has to be modified somehow. It typically seems to coincide with the league finding something kickers do extremely well and they make it more difficult for them or force them to do something differently.
Last year, it was moving the extra point back so each one is about a 33-yard extra point – prompting teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers to seriously contemplate just going for two points every time after touchdowns.
This year, it’s moving the marking of the ball after touchbacks to the 25-yard line in hopes of discouraging the touchbacks that littered the NFL landscape since the league moved the kickoff line up to the 35-yard line when it finally realized that kickoffs were a prime cause for players in wedges getting concussions.
Minnesota Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer is dealing with the latest in the annual changes made to his job description and, following the Vikings’ preseason opener at Cincinnati, dealing with the new rule remains a work in progress.
“We experimented with it a little bit the other night,” Priefer said. “We’re going to continue to experiment - the different type of kicks, how deep we want it, how much hang time do we want. Going indoors, we’ll be able to control some of those things.”
It would be understandable for a special teams coordinator to be frustrated by the NFL’s constant reshuffling of what his philosophy to kicking is. Whether he’s frustrated or not, he’s not letting on that the consistent changes to the kicking rules will be too big a challenge.
He’s learning on the fly, just like everybody else is in his position is learning simultaneously. Priefer is seeing the change of the kicking landscape as a challenge, not a road block.
“I’m excited,” Priefer said. “It’s a new strategy. We had some strategy the other night (at Cincinnati) and it really worked in our favor. Our last kickoff, I know he muffed it, but if he picked it up right away we tackle him at the 13-yard line. It was a great kick, outside the numbers, 3-yard line, I think he had a 4.3 hang time. Those are the types of things that Blair Walsh can do to help our kickoff team, to help the field position. It’s going to be based on who we’re playing, the time of the game, the situation of the game.”
Priefer started working on the Vikings’ kickoff game plan about the same day (if not before) it was approved to the competition committee. Being inside will allow the Vikings to have a consistent plan they can tinker with, as opposed to a kicker in Chicago – where the winds change from day to day and hour to hour.
“We actually started back in the spring and working in the indoor facility and sometimes out here when it wasn’t too windy in the spring,” Priefer said. “Having nine games indoors is really going to benefit us and we’ll probably be able to do our techniques and the philosophy that we want to have on Sundays. We’re going to keep working in practice and see where we’re at and keep working during the preseason games and see where we’re at.”
So how big is a 5-yard difference in the “penalty” for a touchback? The 2016 preseason is determining for the “past-performance” metric types what the value of kick returners is going to be.
It is a process that will morph itself in film study and Priefer is in full study mode. How much do the scoring chances increase for an offense starting at the 25-yard line after a touchback compared to the 20-yard line?
“I don’t know the percentages per se, but I know there’s a big difference,” Priefer said. “I think every head coach is going to look at it differently. If he’s a defensive head coach and he knows that five yards is a big deal, some other coaches may not. I think it’s a big deal. When you play quarterbacks like we have in our division, you play Aaron Rodgers. You give Aaron Rodgers the ball at the 25 as opposed to the 20, 19, 18. I think that’s a big difference. All those things are factors that we think about and that keep me up at night. It’s going to make it fun for the new rule.”
It’s never too early to start building intel.
To date, the NFL has largely been taking 32 different approaches to dealing with the new rule change. The Vikings may have provided crucial early evidence.
After tying last Friday’s game 7-7 with 47 seconds to play in the first half, Mike Nugent bombed a kickoff out of the end zone. Perhaps from the 20-yard line, the Vikings would have just taken a knee and been done with it.
The Vikings went for it and, as Laquon Treadwell gained the 18th yard on his reception by pushing the ball forward, they got into position for Walsh to bomb a 51-yard field goal.
He caromed the kick in off the crossbar.
A year ago, that would have been a 56-yarder under identical circumstances and likely would have sent the Vikings and Bengals to halftime tied 7-7.
Thirty-one other teams have taken note.