From a special teams perspective, Monday night went just fine for the Minnesota Vikings. Booming punts, excellent kickoff coverage, and even a blocked field goal! It was a special teams masterclass. Just ignore everything else that happened, and you’ll walk away with fond memories.
Okay, but for real, though, the game against the Philadelphia Eagles was a disaster. The defense was playing so far off the receivers that they could barely read their jersey numbers. Philly’s pass-catchers were constantly open. Kirk Cousins also threw for three interceptions in the fourth quarter, and it honestly could have been five.
But they did special teams right, so I’m going to focus on the positive. (I’ll leave it to everyone else to discuss the doom and gloom from Week 2.) Special teams is important, but in a different way than offense or defense. In many cases, no news is good news for the ST unit.
What’s notable here is that the Vikings showed that their special teams can help win games.
Start with Ryan Wright, the rookie punter, who is already one of my new favorite Vikings. He’s 6’3″, 243. lbs, and, damn, can he boom a football. Wright has the most punts inside the 20-yard line in the NFL (seven) while being tied for fifth-most in attempts (10).
That’s an excellent ratio, and it’s not oversaturated with attempts. It also proves I was wrongly concerned about moving on from Jordan Berry. Berry wasn’t perfect, but he also had a good percentage of his kicks landing inside the 20, and he didn’t kick many touchbacks. But Wright has proven you should have faith in young special teamers if they earn the starting job (ahem, Daniel Carlson).
The coverage unit worked in tandem with Wright’s punting. Five yards was the longest return they allowed on all five of their punts. The special teams never wavered when the team lost all momentum. Again, this is an example of them taking away any additional opportunities for the Eagles to have widened their margins.
The Vikings didn’t kick a field goal against the Eagles, but that’s the offense’s fault. Still, Greg Joseph hit a franchise-high 56-yarder in Week 1 and hasn’t missed a field goal or extra point this year. That’s an incredible stat, knowing Minnesota’s shaky past with kickers.
Previously, I brought up concerns about having a relatively laid-back front office compared to the former crew. Namely, that there may be a lack of discipline. But laid-back works well for kickers. No need to mess with the mind of a professional kicker who inevitably will go through ebbs and flows.
I just love to see a guy who can kick the long ball. It takes away a huge stressor, even though any reasonable Vikings fan is always a little leery when kicking is involved. I don’t cover my face with my hands and peek between my fingers while Joseph lines up at the hash.
There’s another side of the field goal unit, too, the blocking group. Veteran and future Hall of Famer Patrick Peterson proved his continued value by slapping down a field goal in crunch time. That should’ve been the moment the game turned in the Vikings’ favor.
It’s hard not to blame the offense for what transpired following Peterson’s block. Yes, the defense had a tough time covering, but they locked up a bit in the second half. The offense couldn’t do a thing even after a blocked field goal and an interception. Kris Boyd, who recovered the ball on the block, maybe should have returned it (and not gotten run down by the opposing holder), but you can’t ask for much more than what they got.
PFF has Minnesota’s special teams unit ranked eighth in the NFL. They don’t appear to be an easy scapegoat this time. The Vikings aren’t going to be the 2010 San Diego Chargers; they had the best offense and defense in the NFL but couldn’t get over the hump because their special teams unit was dead last.
The Vikings’ so-far smooth special teams play helps clarify an early assessment of Kevin O’Connell‘s abilities. The fact that his offense couldn’t earn a single point off a potentially momentum-shifting blocked field goal is something to keep in mind.