This is part two of our Minnesota Vikings breakdown as we approach Sunday night’s NFC Championship game.
I took a look at the Viking offense Tuesday, which you can read here:
Sean Cottrell will dig into the Viking defense later this week, but I’ll continue the series with a look at Minnesota’s special teams, a unit that has emerged from the shadow of historic blunders committed by the likes of Blair Walsh and Gary Anderson.
Let’s start there, with the kicking game.
Kai Forbath probably thought he’d sealed a Vikings’ win when he nailed a 53-yard field goal with about three minutes remaining in Sunday’s divisional round game.
He was an average kicker in the regular season, hitting 32 of 38 field goals for an 84.2% success rate, which was 16th in the NFL. On extra points, he went 34 of 39 for a 30th ranked 87.2%.
For comparison, Jake Elliott was 39 of 42 on extra points (92.9%) and 26 of 31 on field goals (83.9%).
In Forbath’s case, I feel like his numbers are a bit misleading, mostly for the fact that he was one of just four kickers who was asked to try nine or more field goals from 50+ yards. I’m gonna go ahead and assume that’s probably because he played eight home games inside a wind-free dome. Forbath went 6-9 from that range with a regular season long of 53 yards.
Here’s how he did from the other distances:
- 1-19 yards: 0 for 0
- 20-29 yards: 8 for 8 (100%)
- 30-39 yards: 12 for 14 (85.7%)
- 40-49 yards: 6 for 7 (85.7%)
- 50+ yards: 6 for 9 (66.7%)
For a bit more context, Forbath had a 53-yarder blocked in the Detroit win back in November that head coach Mike Zimmer didn’t blame him for. He also had two extra points blocked this season, so take that into account when looking at the numbers.
As far as kickoffs go, Forbath put exactly half of his efforts into the end zone (44 of 88). On the 44 returns, the Vikings’ special teams unit allowed 22.9 yards on average, which was middle of the pack this season. They didn’t give up a return touchdown and didn’t try an onside kick because they didn’t have to, not when you’re building big leads on the strength of that defense.
Sunday, Alvin Kamara returned a pair of kicks, one for 20 yards and the other for 30. We’ll see what the weather looks like this weekend and whether or not that affects Forbath’s ability to get the ball into the end zone. I really don’t think we’ll be seeing too many kickoffs from either team, if we’re being honest. It should be a low scoring affair where a key field goal might make the defense. Jake Elliott has the benefit, and advantage, of playing at home.
The underrated Ryan Quigley did a really nice job in his first year with the Vikings.
Thing is, punting stats are context-heavy. You’ve got gross yards, which is basically how far the ball travels, vs. net yards, which incorporates an opponent’s return attempt. Special teams coordinators will tell you that they don’t give a shit about a raw 47.3 gross punting average, but if that net average is something like 44.5, then you’re doing a great job of limiting return yards.
A lot of it, however, depends on where you’re punting from. If I punt from my opponent’s 45 yard line and the ball goes into the end zone, he gets it back on the 25. The ball traveled 45 yards but I only gained a net of +20 total yards in trying to influence field position.
Anyway, Quigley only punted 71 times in the regular season, a stat that places him bottom-half in total attempts, obviously because the Viking offense would run the ball, chew clock, and put together consistent scoring drives. His net number was a 32nd-ranked 42.2 and his gross was a 31st-ranked 39.2.
That all means basically nothing.
Where he really shined was in ball placement, with a ridiculous ZERO touchbacks this season. Seriously. He didn’t kick a single ball into the end zone:
#Vikings punter Ryan Quigley ties NFL record with no punts for touchbacks with 40 or more in a season.
— Chris Tomasson (@christomasson) December 31, 2017
The guy he tied for the record? Former Eagle Sav Rocca, who did it in 2013 with the Redskins.
Ironically, Quigley’s first touch back of the season took place against the Saints last weekend, so go figure.
But more often than not, Minnesota was a team that really worked opponents in field positioning and rarely went for it on 4th down (just 1 for 7 this season). They liked to flip the field and give their defense good starting points.
Quigley was #1 in fair catches, with returners signaling for space 33 times on his 71 punts. When teams did return the ball, they averaged 8.9 yards, which was 11th-most in the NFL. The Vikings did allow a punt return touchdown this year, which is probably why that number looks a bit high, and it came on a really weird play against the Bears where Chicago had a 2nd returner kneeling along the sidelines, hiding from view:
Bryce Callahan kneeling near sideline and ends up with the TD return pic.twitter.com/EXawXyOnmk
— ⓂarcusD (@_MarcusD2_) December 31, 2017
Minnesota only gave up 213 punt return yards overall, which top-half of the league, so you see how that touchdown return sort of skews the numbers.
Overall, they’re a good punting unit with a guy who was excellent at dropping the ball inside the 20 (29 times on 71 punts).
I mean, look at this:
— Tanner Harris (@TannerHarris15) December 3, 2017
That’s not easy to do.
Marcus Sherels is the Vikings’ punt returner and splits kick off duty with Jerick McKinnon.
In kick returns, both finished top 20 this season in average return yards:
In punting, Sherels had 39 efforts for an average of 9.5 yards, which places him top ten league-wide. He ripped off a 46 yarder against Baltimore for his season long and had a really nice 19-yard return against the Saints:
That play forced a tackle from Saints punter Thomas Morstead, who apparently hurt himself in the process:
— Real Super Dave (@SuperStatsDave) January 14, 2018
As far as coverage goes, rookie linebacker Ben Gedeon led the Vikings with 18 special teams tackles this season. He was a fourth round pick out of Michigan. Sherels doubles as a gunner on the punting team opposite Jayron Kearse, and both have been excellent shedding blocks and getting down the field.
And they’re working with a back-up long snapper, Jeff Overbaugh, after Kevin McDermott was put on injured reserve a few weeks ago. Keep an eye on that.
I don’t know a ton about special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, but there are a few articles and tweets floating around where he’s quoted as asking his returners to be aggressive. There was a bit of a flap in the Steelers loss, when McKinnon brought the ball deep out of the end zone twice and failed to reach the 20 yard line. Priefer took a bit of heat from that, but you see in the clip above how Sherels doesn’t ask for that fair catch, but instead makes an assertive play to pick up 19 return yards instead.
Priefer is known mostly for something completely unrelated to football, but we’ll leave that to a Google search.
Overall, it’s a steady special teams unit that wins field position with pinpoint punting, has a pair of pretty good, returners, and a kicker who probably got a bit of a confidence boost after nailing a 53-yard field goal in the fourth quarter last weekend.