One of the unsung improvements on the Minnesota Vikings this season has been the performance of punter Jeff Locke. A player who has been part or a system that specifies height on punts, not necessarily distance, in order to minimize returns, Locke has spent much of his career near the bottom of the NFL is punting average and net punting average. Now he is having the best season of his career.
Locke is averaging 44.5 yards per punt – more than a yard better than his career average – and has a net punting average of 41.1 yards – more than two yards better than his career total.
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said Monday that Locke’s improvement isn’t the result of letting him kick the ball farther than he has in the past. He has maintained the punting philosophy Priefer asks for, but Locke is just hitting better punts along the way.
“I don’t want him to bomb away,” Priefer said. “Jeff’s been hitting the ball very, very well and I wouldn’t say his punts were bombs away. I think if he gets a 50-yard punt, it’s around 4.7-4.8 hang time. That’s a really good punt. We use the 48 – 4.8, you know 48 yards and 4.8 seconds hang time is kind of the gauge. If it’s 45 (yards), then 4.5 (hang time). If it’s 50 (yards), then closer to 5.0 (hang time) and he’s had several of those. I think his punt the other night was a 5.2 hang time.”
The punt coverage team has been playing extremely well in the constraints of what Priefer is looking for.
Not only is Locke doing his job at a high level, but the coverage team is getting its job done, limiting the returns when an opponent attempts to bring a punt back.
“He’s hitting the ball very, very well,” Priefer said. “He’s confident. We’re protecting him well, we’re covering well, our gunners are doing a good job and we’ve got to keep that up. The stretch of returners we’ve got coming up is outstanding.”
Priefer said there’s no magic formula to explain why Locke’s punts have shown the improvement this season, which included a career-best 72-yard punt when the team needed it most in their win against Arizona and a 50-yarder that pinned Detroit on its own 2-yard line late in last Thursday’s game that forced the Lions to drive the length of the field to tie the game late.
The difference? Experience and mechanics, according to Priefer.
“His leg swing is about the same,” Priefer said. “It’s his drop, his approach angles and the things he does with the approach steps. The things that he’s worked on since the end of last season. We’ve kind of worked on it every year, but he’s kind of put it all together this year. Being around Jeff Feagles, from my years when I was with the Giants, he told me a long time ago that an NFL punter doesn’t hit his stride until year five, six or seven. And Jeff would know because I think he’s punted 18, 19 years in the league. Being that (Locke) is in his fourth year, he’s just starting to hit his stride right now. Obviously, punting indoors helps a lot, too, no matter what you do. He is hitting the ball well.”
While the Vikings have had their fair share of struggles over the last month or more, Locke and the punt coverage team has more than held its own during that stretch. In fact, Locke is having one of the best stretches of his career and, although the team as a whole has struggled, Priefer is excited about what Locke and the special teams have been able to accomplish and hopes it will carry over for the rest of the season as the Vikings need all three phases of the game to show improvement for a stretch run.
“I’m happy the way he’s punting and hopefully he’ll continue that the rest of this year because, as we’ve talked about before, its consistency,” Priefer said. “That’s going to be huge for any specialist. But especially a punter for us with how we win games and how we approach games, especially in the field-position battle that we’re always in.”