Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.
Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.
Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.
Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer wasn’t pleased with the 46-yard field goal attempt that rookie Blair Walsh pulled left with 13:15 to play in last Sunday’s game at Detroit.
If Walsh had made that kick, the Vikings would have led 23-6 with their defense playing well. Instead, the miss gave Detroit hope.
“I called him over after that play,” Priefer said. “I wasn’t mad. Because he’s nine of 10. You can’t get mad at what he’s done for us this year. And he kicked off so well and really helped our team win that game. But I said, ‘Do you realize the situation?’ He had already thought about it.
“Now you’re up three scores with 10 minutes to go in the game. The way our defense was playing, I just felt good about us winning that game at that point. But then you’re [only] up 14. And that’s a whole different deal. Two scores is obviously not as good as three scores. Hopefully he’ll grow from that and learn from it and move on.”
Priefer said he expressed his discontent in a calm manner, making sure to get his point across without getting too deep into Walsh’s head.
“I was disappointed for him, disappointed for us,” Priefer said. “And he knows that. He’s a smart guy. He doesn’t have to be told when he does something wrong. We watched it on tape together on Monday morning. He knew what he did wrong.”
Priefer said Walsh got a little too close to the ball on the miss. “Probably lunged into it a little bit and then wrapped his foot around it. He’ll do that every now and then in practice. So we’ll work in here on that.”
Need a break?
Priefer was tempted to use a timeout just 12 seconds into last Sunday’s win. After Percy Harvin returned the opening kickoff 105 yards for a score, Priefer was a bit concerned that his special teams players might be a bit tired and perhaps overly excited for the ensuing kickoff.
“I’ve had it happen before,” Priefer said. “You can give up a long return after a big play like that. Because many of the same guys who are on the return team are on the kickoff phase as well.”
Priefer also thought about asking for a timeout after Marcus Sherels’ delivered his 77-yard punt return score in the third quarter.
“But I already had a sub for Marcus,” Priefer said. “And then I turn around and there he is. I told him, ‘I’ve got somebody for you [on kick coverage].’ He goes, ‘No, I’m fine.’ He wasn’t even breathing hard. That’s what kind of a special kid he is. He was ready to go on the next play.”
Of course, there was little to fear for the Vikings' kickoff coverage team Sunday. Walsh produced touchbacks on all five of his kickoffs.
Priefer also took note of the five-man escort that Sherels had for the final 25 yards or so of his touchdown return.
“That was pretty cool,” Priefer said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that before. I was really fired up about that.”
Here’s the latest dip into the fountain of praise for Harvin, of whom Priefer had this to say: “Offensively and special teams, Percy Harvin is so special. He’s a special athlete and a special young man. He plays hard. He practices hard. He does everything full-go. And that’s the kind of guy you love to coach. No matter what he does out there, he’s going to make us better.”
Percy Harvin, who had a 105-yard kickoff return against Detroit on Sunday for a touchdown, has been named the NFC's special teams player of the month.
Here's the release from the Vikings:
HARVIN NAMED NFC SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE MONTH FOR SEPTEMBER
Percy Harvin has been named the Special Teams Player of the Month for September. It is the first time in Vikings history a return specialist has earned the award. In his 4th season from Florida, Harvin leads the NFL with a 38.3 kick return average and recorded the longest play in Vikings history with a 105-yard touchdown return on the opening kickoff against Detroit (9/30/12). Harvin has returned 9 kickoffs for 345 yards during the Vikings 3-1 month of September. The Pro Bowl return specialist has 5 career kick return TDs and only Hall of Famer Gale Sayers has more (6) during the first 4 years of his career.
Steve Hutchinson has seen the visiting locker room at Mall of America Field before. But it’s been a long, long time -- from back when he was with Seattle, his first NFL team.
“I was just thinking how weird it is to go back,” Hutchinson said today.
Hutchinson, the Vikings left guard for six seasons, will be back Sunday, this time playing guard for the visiting Tennessee Titans. Hutchinson was with Seattle from 2001 through 2005, then was signed away by the Vikings thanks to a seven-year, $49 million contract. He played six seasons in MInnesota, a tenure than ended with the Vikings letting him go shortly before free agency began last spring.
“I got a call,” he said. “They told me the decision they were going. But it wasn’t completely a blindside to me, knowing the direction the team was going. They were trying to get younger in areas. I kind of saw the writing on the wall. It was a fun run. It was a good six years. But it’s a business, too, and they have to do what they have to do.”
The Vikings revamped the left side of their line, moving Charlie Johnson from tackle to guard and plugging first-round draft pick Matt Kalil in at tackle. Hutchinson signed a three-year, $16 million deal with Tennessee.
Hutchinson said the hardest part about moving was relocating his family. As for continuing his career? That decision was pretty easy. “I had it in my head that, If I had played this last contract out with the Vikings, that would have put me at 12 years,” he said. “And that sounded like a good number to me, a dozen years. I don’t know if I felt comfortable hanging it up after 11. … I don’t know what this contract will take me to. I don’t know if all three years will come into play. But it wasn’t a hard choice to figure out that I wanted to keep playing.”
It appears, though, that Hutchinson has kept tabs on what has happened with the Vikings this season. He said he isn’t surprised by Minnesota’s 3-1 start. “I know the character of the guys in that locker room,” he said, “and the leaders they have on that team.’’
Hutchinson also said he expected quarterback Christian Ponder to blossom in his second NFL season. “I think last year, with the new offensive system and the lockout and no off-season, asking a rookie to come in and grasp every aspect of the game at the quarterback position at the NFL level is hard to do. I knew, once he settled in, he’d be good. They’re doing well, looking good. And I’m sure the fans are happy, and they deserve that.”
Despite reports to the contrary, Titans coach Mike Munchak said he hadn’t completely ruled out quarterback Jake Locker.
Locker dislocated his left (non-throwing) shoulder Sunday. It was the second such injury for Locker, who also did it opening day against New England.
Munchak said he would wait a couple days before officially declaring Locker out. But he also said he wouldn’t put Locker into the game if he hadn’t been able to practice, so it appears all but certain 37-year-old veteran Matt Hasselbeck will play.
Hasselbeck completed 17 of 25 passes for 193 yards, two TDs and two interceptions against Houston last Sunday.
“He takes great control of the huddle,” Munchak said of Hasselbeck. “He has a lot of confidence in himself. He can get the football where it’s supposed to go, and very quickly.”
Room to improve
Last Sunday Chris Kluwe’s 47-yard punt that was downed at the Detroit 2-yard line late in the fourth quarter helped the Vikings seal their win against the Lions. It was the final blow in a game that featured near-perfect special teams play by the Vikings.
But Kluwe said he needs to get more consistent with his punting going forward.
“Not yet,” he said, when asked if he had hit his groove yet this season. “I still had a couple punts in the middle of (Sunday’s) game that I didn’t hit the way I wanted to. And I need to focus on cleaning those up, hitting those better.”
Kluwe is averaging 46 yards per punt with a 40.2-yard net average, both strong numbers. But he sees room for improvement. “It’s just minor errors here or there,” he said. “It’s the difference between dropping it an inch or the right or an inch inside to the left. It’s minor stuff.”
Kluwe, part II
Kluwe, whose active defense of gay rights have made him something of a spokesman in that area recently, said he has received numerous proposals of marriage – via Twitter – since first voicing his opinion on the subject.
“It’s about 70 percent women, 30 percent guys,” said Kluwe, who is married and has two young children.
But that percentage might change.
Kluwe was recently interviewed by Out Magazine, a publication that offers a gay and lesbian perspective on style, entertainment, fashion and politics. As part of the interview he took part in a photo shoot, and his picture will be on the cover of the magazine’s November issue.
After delivering a near flawless special teams effort in a season opening win over Jacksonville, Mike Priefer’s unit had its struggles in last week’s upset of San Francisco. The Vikings special teams coordinator met with reporters Thursday and offered his diagnoses for a handful of things that went wrong against the Niners.
Yes, there were the huge second half kickoff returns by San Francisco’s Kyle Williams, one for 94 yards and another for 50. And Priefer offered his general assessment of what went wrong with his coverage on those.
“Number one, they blocked us up well,” he said. “We knew going in they were very good at it. And we did not do a great job with our lane integrity.”
But a couple of more minor mistakes had Priefer equally aggravated. Take Chris Kluwe’s first punt of the day, for example, a wobbly 35-yarder in which his drop was too far inside.
And then there was Kluwe’s best punt which came with 13:19 left and the Vikings protecting a 24-13 lead. From the 42, Kluwe bombed a perfect directional kick that landed just a couple yards in front of the right pylon with cornerback A.J. Jefferson coming off a block well and blazing down the sideline with a chance to down the ball inside the 2. Instead, Jefferson got to the punt, corralled it but dropped it on the goal line for a touchback, costing the Vikings valuable field position.
“That’s a heartbreaker right there,” Priefer said. “[Jefferson needs to] throw it back a little further. Or even if you’re near the sideline, we’ve talked about knocking it out of bounds. And A.J. hasn’t been around us. I mean, he was coached well at Arizona, don’t get me wrong. But there are little minute detail things that we talk about all the time that the more he hears it, the better he’ll respond.”
Around the block
Priefer was much more pleased with the special teams effort at the close of the first half with Letroy Guion blocking a 43-yard David Akers kick with 52 seconds left and rookie Blair Walsh capitalizing a few moments later by nailing a 52-yard field goal of his own. Instead of holding a 14-6 halftime advantage, the Vikings led 17-3.
“Huge swing against a very good football team,” Priefer said. “It gave us a lot of momentum going into the half.”
As for Guion’s big moment? The energetic defensive tackle combined with Matt Kalil to get great push against the 49ers’ front. And it’s Priefer’s belief that had Guion not got his hand on Akers’ kick, Kalil would have.
“Letroy comes off the ball so hard and so low and he’s got great timing,” Priefer said. “Being a defensive lineman, it’s a little bit easier for him than it is for a guy like Matt Kalil, who’s obviously going off a snap count. So our goal is to get Matt even better with his get-off and have those two working together and continuing to work together as the year goes on.”
If it seems like Percy Harvin has no caution when fielding kicks deep in his own end zone and bringing them out, that’s by design.
“Overly aggressive is not a term [with us],” Priefer said. “We’re going to be aggressive. We’re going to get after it. And we’re going to bring it out when we have an opportunity to bring it out. And the only way we keep him in is determined by a situation. Up by 10, 4 minutes left to go in the game, let’s give the ball to the offense at the 20, try to grind it out in the 4-minute situation and give us the best field position we can. But I’ll be honest with you, I think with our returners back there and the guys we have blocking for them, we have a chance to score every time.”
Harvin caught one kick against San Francisco six yards deep and returned it only to the 14. But that’s OK. Priefer wants his kick return unit to have a fearless confidence.
“If I look at Percy and say, ‘We need to keep this one in,’ he’d look at me cross-eyed. He believes he’s going to score every time. And I think the guys around him believe he’s going to score every time. We’ve darn near broke about three this year.”
For the year, Harvin has returned eight kickoffs for an average of 30 yards, ranking eighth in the NFL heading into Week 4. The Vikings have taken touchbacks on five of the 17 kickoffs they’ve received.
He keeps going and going and going …
Priefer hasn’t needed much time this week to review the strengths and weaknesses of Lions kicker Jason Hanson, who’s been booting balls in Detroit since 1992. Hanson is in his 21st season now. And last week, after punter Ben Graham suffered a season-ending calf injury, Hanson was called into emergency duty as a punter as well. Hanson’s busy day in Tennessee included three punts for an average of 39.3 yards. He also added field goals from 47, 53, 33 and 26 yards and made three extra points.
Hanson was reportedly unhappy with his punting effort.
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