Fans who have followed the Vikings closely know that one of the focuses of training camp and the preseason was to improve on special teams, especially the punt coverage unit. Perhaps no facet of the team was more of a detriment than the punt return game. The numbers don't lie and they tell a particularly grim tale of what happened in 2008.
Vikings opponents punted 80 times last year. Of those, 57 were fielded by Vikings return men, but only 34 of them were returned (23 resulted in a fair catch being called). On the flip side, Vikings punter Chris Kluwe hit 73 punts. Of the 50 of those that were fielded, 42 of them were returned (opponents had just eight calls for a fair catch).
Even worse was what opponents were able to do after fielding the ball. The Vikings only had 273 yards in punt returns, an 8-yard average in which almost 30 percent of those came on one return by Bernard Berrian. Vikings opponents had 624 yards in returns – almost 15 yards per punt – and four of them were returned for scores.
Kluwe had one of the more impressive gross punting averages in 2008, bombing punts at a rate of 47.6 yards. The gross average was more than four yards better than opposing punters, but, when return yardage was factored in, the Vikings had a net punting average of just 35 yards, more than four yards worse than their opponents.
On a division winner in which the offense and defense were both efficient and ranked among the best in many statistical categories, the special teams were the thorn in the lion's paw that consistently negated many of the good things being done in the other phases of the game. With new special teams coordinator Brian Murphy taking over, there is a new focus that, while not producing the booming punts of the past, is set on eliminating the problems of 2008.
"This year, a lot of the focus is going to be on hang time and direction," Kluwe said. "It will give our guys a chance to get down the field and cover. We've really emphasized hang time over distance this offseason."
The results have been evident. Of 19 punts by Kluwe in the preseason, only eight of them have been returned – along with six fair catches, one touchback and four that have bounced out of bounds. Although the special teams did allow one kick to be returned 82 yards for a touchdown, of the other 18 punts, opponents have a total of 28 return yards (players and coaches have termed the TD a fluke because a bounce that had the ball hopping backwards over the coverage before it was picked up in stride and returned).
The overall improvement has come at a price. Kluwe has averaged less than 40 yards a punt (9.5 yards less than opposing punters), but the net average per punt has been a little over 33 yards a kick (just four yards less than their opponents). Kluwe said it is an adjustment he is learning to make.
"I'd be lying if I said I don't enjoy kicking the ball far," Kluwe said. "Usually what gets a punter to the Pro Bowl is based on your gross (punt average). But if it's what is going to help out the team, then I will do whatever I can to help. Punting is an important phase of special teams and we can't afford to have four punts brought back for touchdowns like we did last year. We just have to make sure that everyone is on the same page to make the team better – even if you have to sacrifice some individual numbers."
Kluwe said it has been a little unnatural to be a punter that tries to hang shorter punts. He has been accustomed to trying to punt as far as he possibly can, but given the Vikings woes when he out-punted his coverage people, he said a change was needed and he has been on board with it.
"I'm adjusting to it," Kluwe said. "The goal is to get more hang time and not be as concerned about distance. It's been a little difficult, but hopefully it won't be as difficult as it was trying to kick to the sidelines last year. Like anything else, it will take some practice, but I have a pretty decent grasp on it and, hopefully, we can got out there and be an asset to the team."
The change in philosophy is nothing new. Other teams have employed similar strategies. In all of 2008, the Atlanta Falcons allowed just 49 yards in punt returns. While punter Michael Koenen ranked 31st in gross punting average, the net average was in the middle of the pack, thanks to not allowing teams to get any significant returns.
Kluwe said the Vikings are looking to do the same, not attempting coffin-corner kicks, but rather putting air under the ball so the coverage men can force the issue and not allow punts to be returned.
"It's more to give your guys time to get down the field and get underneath the ball to force them to call a fair catch," Kluwe said. "You hit a coffin corner punt and it doesn't have quite as a much hang time, there's a chance the guy can run it back. A good example would be a game at Chicago two years ago. The first punt I hit came down on the 10-yard line about a foot from the sidelines. Devin Hester fields it there and returned it 90 yards for a touchdown. That was the epitome of a coffin corner kick, yet at the same time, it got returned for a touchdown. The coaches just want to be sure that doesn't happen this year."
Kluwe said if the coverage teams show some significant improvement, we may see a return to the "bomb's away" style of punting that he has become known for. But, until then, the special teams hope to go unnoticed, because the group didn't enjoy the media spotlight last year.
"(The coaches are) going to choose what they want to do based on what's best for the team," Kluwe said. "It's up to me to follow up and give the team the best chance of winning."
Or maybe just not losing.
Kluwe told to kick his old habit
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