The Vikings’ punt team has long employed a conservative scheme under veteran coordinator Mike Priefer. In his eyes, distance matters less than hangtime. It’s a sensible strategy that has reduced return yards and kept opponents out of the endzone via punt returns each of the last two seasons, albeit at the expense of overall distance. It is the same strategy that was implemented with Chris Kluwe and caused an uproar from the former punter, who claimed his atrophying punt averages were a result of scheme, not of skill deterioration.
After hearing from Priefer on Monday and current punter Jeff Locke on Wednesday morning, an easy summation would be that Locke needs to improve, but he’s not on as thin of ice as many Vikings fans would expect. Priefer said the Vikings liked Locke’s performance in the spring and opted not to bring a second punter to camp to compete with Locke for the job.
“Jeff obviously got us through a difficult two years outdoors in TCF,” said Priefer. “That was a tough place to punt, especially in November, December and January, but I thought he did a lot better job that the numbers say he did. I know a lot of people are on him about his numbers, but when you go back and look at it, nobody wanted to punt. There’s not one punter I talked to that we played that wanted to punt at TCF in the weather and winds that we got there, so I thought that Jeff really helped us out.”
“Our punt coverage was frickin’ great at TCF.”
The negative numbers Priefer alludes to are likely kicks inside the 20 and net punt average. Locke was 22nd in the league with 23 kicks inside the 20, accomplishing it on just 35 percent of his attempts (though not each punt gives the punter a chance to pin the opponent deep). His net average was 30th league-wide at 37.8 yards, only better than Ryan Quigley (NYJ) and Drew Butler (ARI). This was the one area Priefer singled out in which Locke needs to be more consistent, saying he’d like Locke to shoot for 40-yard net averages, putting Locke in the league’s upper half. “He needs to be the most consistent guy in the league that we can rely on, especially when we’re going indoors,” Priefer said.
Then there are the good stats. Locke, in tandem with gunners Marcus Sherels and Trae Waynes, as well as the rest of the punt coverage team, held opponents to 5.2 yards per return (5th) and 152 punt return yards (2nd). “Our punt coverage was frickin’ great at TCF,” Locke told Cold Omaha. Particularly with the inclement conditions at blustery TCF Bank Stadium, Locke was instructed to reduce aggressive attempts where the ball could sail. With Sherels’ and Waynes’ coverage, the Vikings were able to hold opponents to the ninth-fewest returned kicks in the NFL – just 29 – which excludes fair catches, punts downed or out of bounds and touchbacks.
“I think it’s just different styles,” said Locke of the Vikings’ approach. “Certain coaches and certain punters play the 60-yards-to-the-sideline-game. Us being at TCF last year, we played more of the hangtime game just because of the conditions. You can’t exactly hit a 60-yard punt in 20 degrees. It’s just kind of two different strategies.”
“You can’t exactly hit a 60-yard punt in 20 degrees.”
Moving indoors this season will be the make-or-break variable that influences Locke’s future. In 13 career games thus far in domed stadiums, Locke has an additional three yards distance, putting him at 45.6 yards per punt. If Locke could match that average and get comparable punt coverage this year, he would be over Priefer’s target net of 40 yards. As a rookie at the Metrodome, Locke had his best net season at 39.2.
While TCF Bank neutralized the Vikings’ ability to attempt more aggressive punts, Locke says the move indoors will open up new avenues for the team’s punt unit. “I think we can definitely do different types of things,” said Locke. “I think that each week Prief and I can kind of gameplan based on who we’re playing, and we can kind of switch it up. You get a little bit more ability to change punt style week to week. It’s going to be a little bit more gameplanning going inside.”
The fourth-year punter is not completely out of the woods, however. The Vikings have an open roster spot in case they need to bring another body in, and then there’s this pledge from Priefer: “He’s got to have a good camp here or we’ll end up bringing in competition.”