Special teams move from liability to asset

Last year, Vikings fans cringed at the thought of a punt or kickoff in hands of a good return man. This year, it's the Vikings with the dangerous returners and suddenly solid coverage units. See what they had to say about the turnaround and the numbers to support the argument.

Last year, it seemed every time the Vikings offense stalled, or even after it had scored, fingernails across the state were getting chewed to a nubbin. Kicking the ball, whether via punt or kickoff, was a dicey proposition.

That might be kind. Try an invitation to trouble.

Vikings opponents enjoyed the eighth-best starting field position after kickoffs last season with an average starting spot of the 28.1-yard line. When receiving kickoffs, the team was 21st in the league, with their own average starting position at the 26.4-yard line. Darius Reynaud was 30th in the league with a 25.1-yard average on his kick returns.

It wasn't much better on punts. Although Chris Kluwe had the fourth-best gross punting average, his net of 35 yards was third-worst in the league. Punt returns weren't much better for the team. Bobby Wade tended to fair catch as many as he returned and he didn't make the league's list of the top 26 punt returners.

Things are much different this year. The Vikings are punting and covering better, and they are certainly returning much better.

"For where people are going, how they are working together to double team somebody or how the returner is setting it with guys blocking a certain way and then being able to bounce it, I just think those guys have taken special teams to a whole different level," head coach Brad Childress said. "What's more, when I say guys playing together, you see offense, defense, they are up on their feet. They know that we are playing well on special teams."

Rookie Percy Harvin stands out the most with his ability to return kickoffs. Harvin is the leader in the NFC in kickoff return average, and only a two-touchdown performance from Miami's Ted Ginn last week has kept Harvin from leading the league in that category. With twice as many returns as Ginn, Harvin is average 30.7 yards on 28 kick returns with two touchdowns, which ties Ginn for the league lead.

Despite not returning kicks or punts in college, Harvin was targeted as a potential return man in the NFL and he isn't surprised by his success in that area.

"Not at all. I think just the ability to hit holes and make people miss, I think we have those abilities," he said. "When you do it a couple of times all through training camp and all through OTAs (organized team activities) they say when the blocking gets there it's like playing football all over again."

And Harvin knows how to play football.

Last year, the Vikings' coverage units were so inconsistent that they began kicking away from the more dangerous returners in the league and giving up field position to avoid the big return for a touchdown. This year, other teams have started doing that to the Vikings because of Harvin's threat to take the kickoff back for a touchdown.

Last Sunday, the Packers did that after one big return by Harvin. When they kicked deep to him again later in the game, he had another return into Green Bay territory. There is no reason to believe other teams won't start doing that as well if Harvin continues on his impressive pace.

"I anticipate a lot of the squib kicks, but I'll take that anyway. We'll get the ball at the 40-yard line, 35-yard line, which is great field position," he said. "Of course, I want to field a couple of those, but we'll start at the 40 or wherever they kick the ball at, which is tremendous field position for offense."

The Vikings already have the league's best average starting position following kickoffs at the 34.9-yard line, 3.5 yards more than second-place Chicago. Only Minnesota and Chicago have their average field position north of the 30-yard line.

"I'm happy where we have taken the field at and I am glad to have a returner, but I tell you guys all of the time, there are 10 guys out there, when you talk about 10 blockers and one returner, they can't do one thing," Childress said. "Just to watch that thing fit up (against the Packers) a couple of times, it's a thing of beauty."

Childress also emphasized how pleased he was with the coverage units in the first half of the season.

Despite having only two touchbacks, tied for third-worst in the league, the Vikings are 11th in the NFL for limiting their opponents' average starting field position following a kickoff. With 50 kickoffs, the second-most in the league to New Orleans' 52, Minnesota's opponents are starting at the 25.1-yard line on average. The Vikings also have a league-leading 12 kickoff returns that they have stopped inside the 20-yard line.

The coverage and advancing of punts has also been much better.

Between Reynaud and Jaymar Johnson, the Vikings are eighth in the league in punt return returns. Johnson's 8.4-yard average is 14th in the league, and Reynaud's 17.3-yard average would be leading the league if he had enough returns before a hamstring injury to qualify for the list.

Kluwe has also improved, sacrificing distance on his gross average for a better net average (following the return). He is now in the middle of the pack at 16th with a 38.2-yard net average.

Whether it's a new special teams coach in Brian Murphy, the return of coverage ace Heath Farwell from injury or putting new returners in place, there is no doubt the tables have turned on Minnesota's special teams. They have gone from erratic and nerve-racking to exciting and game-changing.

Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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