Minnesota Vikings punter Jeff Locke has received a lot of heat since he arrived in 2013 after being drafted in the fifth round. Many thought the fifth round was too early to draft a punter, which has partially led to his criticism, but Locke was the 27th-ranked punter in the NFL following the 2015 season in terms of gross yardage, punting for a total of 2,746 yards. That’s a little misleading, though, because special teams coordinator Mike Priefer doesn’t care about gross yardage when it comes to punts; he does cares about net yardage.
But Locke also struggled there last season, averaging 37.8 net yards per punt during the 2015 season, which puts him at No. 30 overall. That number could also be misleading, though, as he and coaches talk about how difficult it was to kick at TCF Bank Stadium, where the Vikings spent the 2014 and 2015 seasons while their new stadium was being constructed.
“Jeff has done a great job,” said Marcus Sherels, who’s a key special teams player for the Vikings. “He’s had to punt in bad conditions at TCF and he’s done a great job for us as we cover the punt.”
While some of the blame for the poor net-yardage total should be given to Locke, some of the blame should also be shouldered by the punt coverage unit. Players like Sherels, who is one of the team’s gunners, are responsible for getting down the field quickly and tackling the ball carrier for little or no gain.
“You know, at the end of the day the guys that we have covering punts are extremely important,” Priefer said. “I still think that’s the most important phase of our football team.”
Covering punts can be a difficult job. The gunners, who are the players who line up near the sidelines on both sides of the punt formation, have to get down the field quickly while avoiding a number of blockers. They then have to find the return man, decipher whether he is fielding the punt, letting it fall behind them or calling for a fair catch.
If return man is letting the ball fall behind him, the gunner has to then track the ball in the air and try to stop it before it bounces into the end zone.
A gunner that is late can lead to a big return, which hurts the net yardage and makes the punter look bad.
“We need to do a lot of technique with those guys,” Priefer said of his gunners. “You have to either be small and quick like Marcus Sherels or a bigger, faster guy. You know, Trae Waynes is a very good gunner as well. You have to be able to tackle. You have to be able to find the football. There’s a lot of repetition work, but there’s some guys who can just go out there. Everson Griffen was a gunner when I was first here. He’s a different type of guy than obviously Marcus Sherels or Trae Waynes. I think at the end of the day you have to be able to find the ball and be able to tackle.”
The gunners are not always attacking the ball, though. Sherels said that their responsibilities and the way they play a punt varies every time the ball is kicked. What they do will depend on where they are on the field, how much time is left in the game, who they are kicking to and what the score is.
Regardless of the situation they are in, though, it is always their job to stop the opponent. Punt coverage is a way for the team to flip the field after an offensive drive stalls and it is a way to really help out the defense. And while the punter is often the one receiving a majority of the blame for poor punt coverage, there are many more pieces going into it.