Analysis: Special teams at risk

The Vikings won several close games in 2008, but a number of those wins wouldn't have needed to be that close if not for a big special-teams play by the opposition.

With the Vikings looking secure in retaining Leslie Frazier for the 2009 season, it would seem that a lot of the pieces to the puzzle to continued success for the Vikings will remain in place next year. While some areas – quarterback leaps to mind – are still viewed as unsettled, there is one area that clearly needs an overhaul.

In 2008, nobody had worse special teams than the Vikings. Those who look merely at the field goal numbers of Ryan Longwell and the gross punting average of Chris Kluwe could surmise that things weren't that bad. But word got around the NFL in 2008 – special teams are Minnesota's Achilles heel. Considering how many games are decided on one or two big plays, the fact the Vikings finished 10-6 with as many critical gaffes as were that made by the special teams last year was astounding.

Some are remembered individually – Reggie Bush, for example – but when stacked one atop the other, 2008 may have been the worst special teams performance any team has put together in recent years. The only games in which there weren't special teams moments of note were Game 2 against Indianapolis and Game 8 vs. Houston. Other than that, you couldn't find a game without at least potentially game-changing mistake.

Consider the following:

Game 1 at Green Bay — Trailing 10-6 midway through the third quarter, the Vikings punt to Green Bay's Will Blackmon, who returns it 76 yards for a touchdown and a 17-6 Packers lead. Green Bay wins 24-19.

Game 3 vs. Carolina — Ahead 17-10 with 12:53 to play in the third quarter following a Vikings touchdown to start the second half, Panthers rookie Jonathan Stewart takes the ensuing kickoff 91 yards to the Vikings 8-yard line. Fortunately for the Vikings, a block-in-the-back penalty unrelated to the path of Stewart's long return brings the play back. The Vikings win 20-10.

Game 4 at Tennessee — Trailing 23-10, the Vikings rally on an Adrian Peterson touchdown to trail 23-17 with 6:17 to play. On the ensuing kickoff, Titans cornerback Chris Carr returns the kick 52 yards. Tennessee doesn't score, but its punt pins the Vikings on their own 2-yard line and Gus Frerotte is intercepted when forced to pass. The Vikings lose 30-17.

Game 5 at New Orleans – Truly rock bottom for this group. Pierre Thomas takes the opening kickoff 53 yards to set up a touchdown and an early 7-0 Saints lead. The Vikings special teams scores a touchdown when Antoine Winfield returns a blocked field goal to tie the game 7-7. But an excessive celebration penalty backs the kickoff up 15 yards and, after a 32-yard return, the Saints get a field goal to take a 10-7 lead. Although they don't take advantage, Thomas has a 41-yard kickoff return in the second quarter. In third quarter with the Vikings leading 20-10, Reggie Bush returns a punt 71 yards for a TD to cut the lead to 20-17. On the last play of the quarter, Bush returns a punt 29 yards and only goes down because he tripped making a cut without being touched. It leads to a field goal to tie the game 20-20. With 11:36 to play in the game, Bush returns a punt 64 yards for a touchdown. The Vikings end up winning 30-27, but no thanks to their special teams.

Game 6 vs. Detroit — Trailing 10-9 with 10:04 to play against the hapless Lions, the Vikings get a 38-yard go-ahead field goal blocked. They would get a field goal on the final play of the game, thanks in large part to a questionable pass interference penalty.

Game 7 at Chicago — Now terrified of big returns, the Vikings opt to squib kick on kickoffs. The first comes with the Vikings leading 7-0. The squib is returned to the 46-yard line and, due in part to the short field, the Bears tie the game 7-7. On the next possession, Chris Kluwe drops a perfect snap, tries to improvise and has his punt blocked and returned for a touchdown. After tying the game 14-14 with 2:18 to play in the first quarter, a squib kick is returned to the 48-yard line. The Bears get just two first downs, but it's enough for a field goal and a 17-14 lead. With the game tied 17-17, a Bears punt takes a backward bounce, hits return man Charles Gordon while he tries to make a block and results in a Chicago TD and a 24-17 lead. With 22 seconds to play in the half and the game again tied at 24-24, the Vikings squib kick and it is returned to the 41-yard line. The Bears complete just two passes, but get close enough for a field goal and a 27-24 lead. Chicago blows the game open in the second half, but the special teams were responsible for at least 17 points in a 48-41 loss.

Game 9 vs. Green Bay — Ahead 21-10 in the third quarter, Longwell misses a 47-yard field goal. With good field position to start the drive, the Packers score to cut the lead to 21-17. With the score the same with 3:20 left in the third, Blackmon returns a punt 65 yards for a touchdown. The Vikings take the lead 28-27 with 3:22 to play, but allow a 41-yard kickoff return. The Packers missed a field goal with eight seconds to play to preserve the win.

Game 10 at Tampa Bay — With 5:36 to play, the Buccaneers break a 13-13 tie with a field goal. On the ensuing kickoff, Maurice Hicks fumbles the ball, which is recovered by the Bucs on the Minnesota 26-yard line. They milk the clock and kick a field goal. Tampa Bay wins 19-13.

Game 11 at Jacksonville – With the Vikings up 14-0 just five minutes into the game and with the potential for a blowout, Jaguars rookie Brian Witherspoon returns a punt 88 yards for a touchdown, allowing Jacksonville back into a game they had seemingly given away in the first three minutes.

Game 12 vs. Chicago — In the most critical game of the season, the Vikings trail 7-0 in the second quarter, but kick a field goal with 12:45 to play in the first half. On the ensuing kickoff, Danieal Manning returns the kick 43 yards to the Bears 48-yard line. The Vikings defense shuts them down, helping propel the Vikings to an eventual win.

Game 13 at Detroit — Trailing 6-0, the Vikings get a Longwell field goal to cut the deficit to 6-3. On the ensuing kick, Aveion Cason returns the kickoff 38 yards to the Detroit 42. Again the defense steps up and the Lions come away empty. The Vikings get another close victory against the Lions.

Game 14 at Arizona — In a thorough domination of the Cardinals, the Vikings lead 28-7 with 4:40 to play in the third quarter. Looking for more, the offense gets conservative to assure three more points, but Longwell's field goal is blocked and returned 68 yards by Roderick Hood for a touchdown to give the Cardinals new life at 28-14. The Vikings would weather the storm, but it was a clear momentum change in a win they badly needed.

Game 15 vs. Atlanta — With the Vikings down 7-0 early, Hicks fumbles a kickoff that pins the Vikings on the 10-yard line. With 15 seconds left in the quarter with the game tied 7-7, Bernard Berrian fumbles a punt that is recovered by the Falcons on the Vikings 22-yard line. They go on to score a touchdown and win the game.

Game 16 vs. New York Giants — The Vikings have a ton of momentum with 11:22 to play in the second quarter. After Peterson scores on a 62-yard touchdown, Ahmad Bradshaw returns the ensuing kick 58 yards to the Minnesota 43. The Giants go on to get a field goal, shut down the Vikings momentum and score the next 19 points before a late rally wins the game for the Vikings.

Game 17 vs. Philadelphia — With the game scoreless with 8:35 to play in the first quarter, rookie DeSean Jackson returns a punt 62 yards to the Vikings 27, which leads to an Eagles field goal. Jackson would have a 30-yard return in the third quarter as the Vikings end their 2008 season.

Clearly not all of the Vikings' problems can be tied solely to special teams and nobody is expecting a special teams unit to be perfect. Amazing plays happen. Mistakes happen. That's understood. But when you have more than 25 foul-ups for a group that is only on the field about 10-15 plays a game, that percentage isn't good.

The Vikings are heading in the right direction. Even without major additions, they will likely be favored to repeat as NFC North champions in 2009. But, with as many games that are decided by one or two critical plays, unless something drastically changes with the Vikings special teams, they will be putting themselves at risk every game next year – not what a championship-caliber team can get away with.


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