Special Teams Back Under Microscope

For three-quarters of the season, the Vikings were able to put their special teams on the field and have comfort in their ability to perform. Now that might be on shaky ground.

Up until this season, special teams had been the thorn in head coach Mike Tice's side.

Kickers, punters, return men – you name them, Tice couldn't fully believe in them.

First it was Doug Brien, a veteran that Tice acquired in 2002 and challenged publicly. The extra pressure didn't help Brien, who was released after going 5-for-6 and missing two extra points in one game. Bring back reliable Gary Anderson, who was only 4-for-9 beyond 40 yards.

Then the Vikings went with Aaron Elling for the 2003 season. Elling was somewhat reliable, if unimpressive, in his first full season in the NFL, hitting 18-for-25. But, despite possessing a strong leg, Elling was only 5-for-10 from further than 40 yards.

Last year, Elling and Morten Andersen shared the duties, and neither seized confidence.

Finally, it looked like Paul Edinger might be the answer. In four years with Chicago, he had become that city's most reliable field goal kicker, but a poor season in 2004 had the Bears comfortable with the idea of releasing him.

To date in Minnesota, it has been another sporadic journey for Edinger, despite kicking in domes for more than half of his games. So far, he is 20-for-29. While Edinger has been money in clutch situations, kicking late game-winning field goals three times this season, accuracy was supposed to be his forte, because distance certainly isn't.

The Vikings are the only team in the league that hasn't forced a touchback all season. They are also tied for second-worst in the league by having opponents start inside their 20-yard line only four times all season.

Conversely, when the Vikings receive the ball on kickoffs, they are one of only four teams to have started inside their own 20-yard line at least 13 times this season.

In punting, Chris Kluwe is still fourth in the league with a 45.3-yard gross average, but his net average has taken a beating in the last month with a few long returns given up, including a 72-yarder by Pittsburgh's Antwaan Randle El on Sunday. Kluwe's net of 36.2 puts him in the lower half of the league's punters.

Sunday's long return was understandable, seeing how Kluwe played with a knee that he termed "pretty swollen" after the game, but he figured treatment and rehab during the week would allow him to punt without being much of an issue Sunday night in Baltimore.

"It's not really painful, it's just limiting because I can't kick as hard as I normally do," he said. "The mobility just isn't there. It just changes my kicking style, so I've got to get used to that."

Kluwe said he punted less than 20 times last week in practice and figured it would be a light week for him again as the team tries to minimize the swelling in his knee.

It looked like Kluwe re-aggravated it on El's 72-yard return, but Kluwe said his tackle attempt didn't bother the knee. Instead, he was disappointed that he wasn't able to push off his knee hard enough to knock El out of bounds.

"I didn't land funny on it or anything, I was just pissed that I didn't kick the ball very well and he got a return off of it. That was maybe on me. The hang time was terrible on that one. I didn't give our guys enough time to get down and cover it," Kluwe said.

He declared himself at about 80 to 85 percent healthy, enough to punt effectively on it.

On the bright side, one of Kluwe's punts led to an easy field goal for the Vikings when the ball bounced at the 2-yard line and hit El, after which linebacker Raonall Smith recovered. Former Viking Darren Bennett has been sharing a bit of insight on pooch punting with Kluwe, but Kluwe said that was not an "Aussie Rules kick."

Another bright spot on special teams this year had been some explosiveness in the kick return game. Koren Robinson had assumed that role and been doing a bang-up job in that department until he and up-back Ciatrick Fason were confused on a pooch kickoff Sunday.

"It was crazy communication with everybody. They were saying if I could get it, then get it and then … I don't know," Robinson said. "When I got up there, I saw that he was trying to catch the ball and moved out of the way. Unfortunately, the ball when through his arms. It was just a miscommunication. We work on it all the time. If it's short, then he gets it and I just pick up his job."

Edinger said the Vikings work on those situations often, and there are various ways to counter-attack a good kick returner.

"We work on that all the time, all that stuff nobody ever sees, in case they have a good returner and you want to kick it short," Edinger said. "You try to get them to fair catch it or fumble it or whatever, and it worked out for them. Sometimes you kick it right to a big man and try to make them catch it or sometimes kick it right behind them so they have to make a decision. Other times you use it when it's cold and you're kicking into a strong wind and you're not going to get a good kick deep, then kick it high and make them make a fair catch."

Fact is, Robinson has been a great kickoff return man this season. His 26.6-yard average is first in the NFC and third in the NFL, making him a serious consideration for a specialist spot on the Pro Bowl team, which is announced later this week.

It's a new role for him this year and one he told Viking Update he has grown to love. He wouldn't give it up now if the Vikings came and asked him to, he said.

Plus, you know, it's a contract year – "Ex-act-ly!" he said with a smile.

Robinson's counterpart on punt returns, Mewelde Moore, is also among the NFL leaders. His 11.5-yard average is second in the NFC and fourth in the NFL.

Just ahead of Moore is Baltimore's B.J. Sams, averaging 12.2 yards per punt return, making special teams coverage another important aspect of the Vikings' next game in Baltimore.

If their special teams continue to leak oil outdoors in Baltimore, the sputtering engine could be halted for another season.

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