It’s been a trying few seasons for Minnesota Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer.
Since 2015 he has replaced a long snapper, a punter and two placekickers, yet the drama continues after rookie Daniel Carlson missed two 42-yard field goals in the latest preseason game, and the team’s punt coverage units have been ultra-vulnerable to big strikes in the return game.
“The kicker-punter situation is obviously a concern,” Priefer said Monday. “Coach [Mike] Zimmer said it was a bad night, and it was a bad night. We didn’t punt well. I think we had one good punt out of five. We had one good kickoff out of three, and we missed two field goals and made a PAT. Obviously unacceptable.”
Long gone are the days of Ryan Longwell, Chris Kluwe and Cullen Loeffler, the Vikings’ trio of specialists that brought a six-season period of harmony at their respective positions.
From 2006-11 the Vikings rolled with the veteran threesome before cutting Ryan Longwell in favor of draft pick Blair Walsh in 2012. That put into motion a special teams carousel that hasn’t stopped spinning. Only once since 2012 — during the 2013-14 seasons — have the Vikings had the same specialists for a two-year stretch.
Their newest two cogs are scuffling at the moment. Carlson’s two misses last Friday have created panic in the easily-spooked fan base, but his body of work this preseason and training camp is still strong. He outkicked Kai Forbath, his chief competition, to win the job, and he responded at Tuesday’s practice with a 5-for-5 performance on field goals, including a pair of 42-yarders.
It’s more difficult to levy blame or give credit to a single person when it comes to the punting game, but as a group, the Vikings punt coverage allowed its highest return average since 2011 last year (8.9). And they’re off to a rocky start in the preseason.
Denver’s Isaiah McKenzie took a punt 78 yards for a touchdown in the first preseason game, Jacksonville’s Rashad Greene returned one 56 yards in the second preseason game to set up the game-winning score, and Seattle’s David Moore galloped 75 yards for a touchdown last Friday that was eventually nullified due to a penalty.
Getting saved by the flag doesn’t make Priefer feel much better, though.
“We really haven’t covered very well,” said Priefer. “Typically, we’ve covered much better. I think part of that is the punting, part of that is the coverage. The young guys have done better in the past in the preseason. I’m sure I have to do a better job coaching. Absolutely that is part of it. Our guys have to step up and play better. I think it’s a combination of the two things.”
Priefer has said in the past that preseason games give him a headache because of the constant personnel changes. Several of the big returns have come against inexperienced units that have lost lane integrity during the return. The common component to each unit is Quigley, who ranked 27th in net yardage last season and has been working with Priefer to improve his distance and hangtime.
“We need to punt the ball more consistently,” Priefer said last week. “Ryan and I have talked a lot about that because when he hits them good, he’s really good. When he hits them poorly, our mishits need to be 43 [yards], 4.4 [seconds], not 39, 3.9.”
Priefer’s job as special teams coordinator means diagnosing the source of the problem. Is it mental? Physical? A slight adjustment? Or a major overhaul?
While Priefer believes Carlson needs to make a technical adjustment, he thinks Quigley needs to stop overthinking.
“What I’ve done is come back and showed some tape from last year to Quigley to see some of the directional punts that he was successful at and what makes him tick,” Priefer said. “He’s not far off. He’s very, very close. I think he’s thinking a little bit too much. I think Daniel [Carlson] and his two misses probably tried a little bit too hard or tried to swing a little bit too hard. He doesn’t need to do that because his leg strength is as advertised.”
In summary, the punter is under-kicking; the placekicker is over-kicking. They’ve got one more preseason to get calibrated before the stakes become real.