After a tumultuous preseason where the Minnesota Vikings had special teams competition virtually across the board, as well as a new special teams coordinator pulling the strings, it shaped up to be another uneven year for a team that’s struggled to find continuity in the all-important third phase.
But the Vikings special teams units have arguably been a strength of the team this season under the direction of Marwan Maalouf, although there have been some hiccups along the way, particularly in the return game.
Let’s see how the Vikings are stacking up against the rest of the league in special teams, entering their final five games.
The Good: Dan Bailey is enjoying a nice bounce-back year following his career-worst 2018. After beating out Kaare Vedvik in a training camp competition, Bailey got off to a rocky start when he missed a field goal and an extra point at Green Bay in Week 2. In the ensuing nine games, he’s only missed two placekicks, giving him the seventh-best field goal percentage in the league (88.2%) and the 14th-best extra-point percentage (93.8%). Bailey has also demonstrated a strong kickoff leg to force touchbacks.
The Bad: Bailey’s missed kicks have contributed to two of Minnesota’s losses. He left four points on the field against the Packers that affected the team’s strategy at the end, and his missed extra point against Kansas City enabled the Chiefs to tie the game late with a field goal.
The Good: Much like Bailey, Britton Colquitt has had a tremendous rebound season. After finishing 30th in net yards per punt with Cleveland (38.2), he’s up to fourth in the league with Minnesota at 43.1 net yards per punt, nearly five yards better than 2018 and better than any season a Vikings punter enjoyed under previous coordinator Mike Priefer. Colquitt is also one of only two full-time punters to avoid having a touchback in 2019. Rookie long-snapper Austin Cutting hasn’t seemed to have any issues either.
The Bad: Colquitt had a notable flub at Kansas City when he shanked a 27-yard kick in a tie game late in the fourth quarter. He has two additional punts of 35 yards or less from deep in his own territory that set up the opposition with good field position.
The Good: The punt coverage unit blocked a punt in Week 1, and the field goal block got a piece of Harrison Butker’s game-winning field goal back in Week 9. Maalouf is known for his aggressive coverage teams, and the Vikings will want to see more of that as the season winds down. Special teams tackling has been mostly disciplined as no punt returner has exceeded 18 yards on a return. Mike Hughes forced a turnover on a kickoff return against the Chiefs.
The Bad: The kickoff coverage has been a little leakier. Of 13 kickoffs returned this year, seven have been brought across the 25-yard line, and two have gone for big yardage: a 52-yard return by Corey Ballentine of the Giants and a 42-yarder by Denver’s Diontae Spencer.
The Good: Out of eight kickoff returns — one of the lowest totals in the league — Ameer Abdullah has brought five across the 25-yard line and has the sixth-best return average in the league (27.1 yards) in those limited attempts. On punt return, veteran returner Marcus Sherels had a season-high 15-yard return against the Giants to give the Vikings excellent field position. Beyond that, the return units have been subpar.
The Bad: The Vikings are lucky they haven’t lost a game as a result of their inability to hang onto the ball on returns. Minnesota has six muffed punts on the season — three by original punt returner Chad Beebe, three by current punt returner Mike Hughes. Somehow, they’ve retained possession on all six. No surprise, the Vikings got their most consistent punt returning when they employed Sherels, but he was released after three games and signed by Miami. Hughes has struggled to catch the football in his brief time as the No. 1 punt returner and has coughed up three fumbles in the last three games, while his season-long return is just 10 yards, the 51st-lowest figure in the league. If his struggles continue, Bisi Johnson would be a backup candidate. As for Abdullah on kickoff returns, he gave the ball away versus Denver on an ill-advised return late in the half, the ninth fumble of his career.