The Vikings Are Entering Unfamiliar Territory With Their Special Teams

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings found themselves in unfamiliar territory on Sunday. No, I don’t mean because they played in London. Tied 25-25 with the New Orleans Saints, they drove 53 yards in six plays to set up the go-ahead field goal with under 30 seconds remaining in regulation. Greg Joseph had just missed an extra point on the prior drive. But he trotted out and nailed a 47-yard field goal, giving the Vikings a 28-25 lead.

Four plays later, the Saints sent out kicker Wil Lutz for his own clutch kick. His was from 61 yards out, but he had made a 60-yarder earlier in the quarter. Lutz’s kick had plenty of leg. However, the ball sailed and hit the left upright, bounced off the crossbar, and landed in the end zone – securing the Vikings victory.

It was the type of game the Vikings have notoriously lost throughout the years. The missed extra point would normally have led to uneasiness on the sidelines, compounding into more misses. Not this time, though, according to head coach Kevin O’Connell in the postgame locker room.

“Greg, what did I tell you after you had already made four field goals and that extra point. What did I tell you?” O’Connell asked Joseph. “I told you that you’re gonna get one more, and you’re gonna knock it through.”

But the Vikings didn’t wait until the end of the game for their special teams to pull through. After their first possession of the second half went three-and-out, punter Ryan Wright booted one 42 yards. The return team knocked the ball loose from Saints punt returner Deonte Harty, and Vikings cornerback Kris Boyd fell on it. Five plays later, Joseph would kick a field goal to put the Vikings up 16-7.

Up 16-14 late in the third quarter, the Vikings faced fourth-and-two on the Saints’ 47-yard line. To the dismay of fans, they trotted out their punt team. But then Wright, a former high school quarterback, took the snap and tossed a 13-yard pass to rookie Jalen Nailor. The Vikings knocked in a field goal at the end of the drive in a game where points were at a premium.

Although Minnesota has started O’Connell’s first season 3-1, it hasn’t been smooth sailing. The offense ranks 15th in points scored and 17th in yards gained. The defense is even more suspect, ranking 27th in yards allowed, although they rank 12th in points allowed.

We see glimpses of what O’Connell, the former LA Rams offensive coordinator, is envisioning. We often see Justin Jefferson running wide open over the middle of the field. Other times, Dalvin Cook burst through holes bigger than a Packers fan’s mouth. But these moments are too often surrounded by long lulls where the offense can’t find its rhythm. And, outside of the opening weekend against Green Bay, the Minnesota defense has felt a step behind its opponents.

The Vikings have been their most consistent on special teams, though. They rank 11th overall according to Pro Football Focus, with a cumulative grade of 82.4. Their average starting field position is their own 30.5-yard line, fourth best in the league. And their opponents are starting on their own 23.6-yard line, the best in the NFL.

That isn’t by chance, either. Joseph has the leg to kick touchbacks on every kickoff. However, the Vikings will opt to kick high, shorter kicks that force returners to field the ball. Through four games, Minnesota’s opponents have run back eight kickoffs. None has been returned further than 24 yards as the Vikings have been able to pin opponents inside their own 25-yard line consistently.

It isn’t just the kicking specialists who are buying in, either. Trailing the Philadelphia Eagles 24-7 in Week 2, it would have been easy for everyone in Minnesota to mail in the game and prepare for the next one. The Eagles sent out kicker Jake Elliott to attempt a 41-yard field goal. But Patrick Peterson, the 12-year veteran cornerback, raced off the edge and blocked it. Boyd picked up the ball and was tackled by Eagles punter Arryn Siposs at the Philadelphia 30-yard line. The Vikings offense didn’t capitalize, but it was the kind of play that can spark a comeback when a team lacks energy.

Special teams coordinator Matt Daniels has kept the same positive energy that O’Connell has hammered home since arriving in Minnesota. Daniels’ weekly press conferences are the most entertaining of all the coaches. He gave a fairly NSFW description of Jalen Reagor‘s physique. He shared that he calls Ryan Wright “Mr. Wright” because “I don’t know, I don’t really like [the name] Ryan.” And on Paul Allen’s 9 to Noon show, Daniels said that he calls Greg Joseph “G-Money.”

Personality is great, but results are what matter in the NFL, and it appears that Daniels’ group is on the right track. He was the assistant special teams coach in Dallas over the past two seasons under John Fassel, one of the most well-respected coordinators in the league. The Cowboys led the league in special teams touchdowns in 2021, scoring off of two blocked punts and a kickoff return. It appears that Daniels is preaching what he learned in Dallas, and it’s been producing solid results in Minnesota.

Of course, the Vikings will need their offense and defense to become much more consistent as the season progresses if they want to be serious contenders in the NFC. But while they attempt to find their identity on each side of the ball, their special teams will have to continue to set them up in advantageous positions. If the first four weeks are any indication, they should be up to the task.

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Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

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