The Minnesota Vikings weren’t favored to beat the Dallas Cowboys, despite playing at U.S. Bank Stadium, meaning Minnesota likely would need to play a very clean game to beat a team that had lost only one game entering Thursday night’s matchup.
To look at many of the numbers, you might have thought the Vikings would have won. They had 21 first downs to the Cowboys’ 13. The Vikings were 6-for-16 on third downs while holding Dallas to 1-for-9. Minnesota out-gained and out-possessed Dallas, running 74 offensive plays to 52.
Yet, in a tight, low-scoring game, the battle of field position matters and punter Jeff Locke had one of his worst, if not the worst, performances of his NFL career.
“I’m pretty disappointed in how I punted (Thursday) night,” Locke said. “Especially in a close game like this, we need the field position to help us win. I’m going to be looking at this film pretty quick to see what’s going on.”
While the Cowboys had a net punting average of 47 yards, the Vikings were putting themselves behind in field position with a paltry 31.9-yard net punting average.
What’s even worse is that Locke’s gross average was only 32 yards on seven punts. More often than not, he hit bad punts, some of which were too short for Dallas to field and then bounced backwards before the Vikings could down it or they died a merciful death out of bounds.
The Cowboys had only two punt returns for a total of 1 yard. Two were fair caught, one was downed and two went out of bounds.
“I don’t think our punter punted very well,” said special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, who spent Thursday night as the interim head coach after Mike Zimmer was out following emergency eye surgery. “He’s been having a great year. Very disappointing performance and he knows that. We’ll talk about it and we’ll hopefully learn and get better.”
So what happened to Locke, who was having a good season before Thursday’s bad game?
“That’s a great question,” he said.
“On the really short one that went out of bounds at the 32 I didn’t catch it clean. It kind of just got stuck in my hands so I just knew that right away. On the others ones I really have to check it out and see what I did.”
The “really short one” was a 16-yarder that bounced backwards. But after starting out with a 43-yard punt, his punts went 37, 16, 25, 38, 33 and 22 yards.
For the most part, a defense that played very well – the Cowboys were averaging more than 400 yards a game and were held to 264 yards on Thursday – saved Locke’s game from sticking out even more. The defense forced a three-and-out after his 16-yarder. His 25-yarder came just before the end of the half and the Cowboys couldn’t take advantage of starting at the 49-yard line.
The Cowboys scored 10 points on possessions that started following a Locke punt. For their first touchdown, they drove 84 yards after Locke had them starting at the 16-yard line. However, the Cowboys’ only field goal of the game – which gave them an eight-point lead with 4:15 left to play – started at their 46-yard line after only a 33-yard punt.
“Just like kind of how we play football here, it’s all field position,” Locke said. “It’s all great defense and controlling the ball on offense. I have to be able to do my part.”
For most of the year, he has. On Thursday, he didn’t.