The smiles on the faces of Daniel Carlson and Matt Wile summed up the kind of day it was for a Vikings special teams unit that spent the preseason being quite miserable and so concerning that its coordinator, Mike Priefer, said he probably wouldn’t sleep the night before the regular-season opener.
“It feels good that you’re the only one looking to talk to me today,” Carlson joked with a reporter after the Vikings’ 24-16 victory over the 49ers at U.S. Bank Stadium. “It was a pretty clean day for the special teams.”
Yes, it was. And it was about time.
So clean was it that Mike Zimmer didn’t field one question about Carlson’s NFL debut, Wile’s fifth NFL game in his seventh day with the team, or a punt team that spent the preseason giving up a 78-yard touchdown return, a 56-yard return, a partially blocked punt and a 75-yard touchdown return nullified by a penalty that didn’t impact the return.
Carlson made his only field-goal attempt, from 48 yards, nailed all three PATs and had touchbacks on all five kickoffs. Not bad for the young fella who missed his first two attempts days after the Vikings anointed him their kicker by cutting Kai Forbath before the third preseason game.
“Made all my kicks,” he said. “That’s what you’re shooting for. We wanted touchbacks today. If that’s the plan, I should be able to get them.”
The punt coverage unit allowed only two returns for 14 yards while forcing two fair catches and four punts downed inside the 20. Wile, who replaced Ryan Quigley after being released in Pittsburgh, botched only one of his six punts when he pulled a 29-yarder left and out of bounds in the fourth quarter.
“I have to trust my [directional] line and my drop,” Wile said. “In that case, I just dropped the ball inside and tried to steer the ball left instead of just swinging up through.”
Wile made amends on his next punt about five minutes later. It was the final phew moment for the special teams.
Fans who witnessed the preseason had to be holding their breaths when the punt team trotted onto the field with 1:56 left, the Vikings leading 24-16 and facing fourth-and-6 from midfield.
“I just tried to get the ball out as fast as possible because I knew those guys were coming,” Wile said. “And I was able to get the ball high enough.”
Gunner Marcus Sherels got down the field fast enough to force a fair catch at the 11.
“I was single-blocked, so it wasn’t that difficult,” Sherels said. “The punter did a great job today.”
In fact, the punter played a significant role in the Vikings taking a 3-0 lead.
The 49ers won the coin toss and deferred. The Vikings drove 37 yards, but stalled at the 49ers 38.
“When you’re close to the goal line like that, it’s tough because if you hit the ball just a little too hard, it’s a touchback,” Wile said. “But that was a pretty good, high punt, and we got it covered.”
Rookie defensive back Mike Hughes settled under the ball at the 4 and made the catch.
“The returner was bluffing like the ball was going somewhere else,” Hughes said. “But I tracked the ball and caught it.”
The 49ers only advanced the ball 18 yards. They punted, and the Vikings responded with a 40-yard drive and a field goal.
Special teams played so well that defensive end Stephen Weatherly, a member of the punt team, almost apologized for San Francisco’s longest return of 14 yards.
“They almost got one on us,” he said. “But I was able to get him to bounce out to the sideline. If you can’t make the tackle, make him go sideways, Coach Priefer always says.”
No doubt Coach Priefer slept much better Sunday night than he did Saturday night.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org