Vikings punt returner Marcus Sherels said Thursday he’s heard that number “about 100 times.” While he was exaggerating, Sherels’ teammates and coaches weren’t joking: The Seahawks have allowed an NFL-low 15 total punt return yards this season.
“We’ll definitely try and beat that,” said Sherels, who averages more than a yard per return more than the Seahawks’ total. “It’s impressive, but we look forward to the challenge.”
That’s a little easier to say for Sherels, the leading punt returner in the NFL this season, but the Rochester native will face a difficult task on Sunday against the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field.
“It was fun talking to our guys about that today in our meetings,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said about the matchup. “This is the best punt returner in the NFL.”
Sherels has more fair catches (14) than returns (12), but he leads the NFL with 16.3 yards per punt return. The bulk of his yardage has occurred in three of the past four games, where the ex-Gophers defensive back has 188 yards against the Giants, Cowboys and Redskins.
“I think our guys are doing a great job blocking this year, so it makes my job easy,” Sherels said. “They’ve held their guys up, gave me some time and some holes.”
Sherels recorded his second career special teams touchdown, weaving through the Giants punt coverage on an 86-yard punt return. He also has had returns of 26 and 20 yards against Dallas and Washington.
“It’s always the guys that initiate the movement back there,” Carroll said. “They’ve got a real sense for it and feel about it, and they make more out of it. He certainly has that.”
Vikings kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson, the backup punt returner, has admired watching Sherels in practice. Patterson said he attempts to implement some of Sherels’ techniques.
“He can just find a hole,” Patterson said. “It can be a little small hole, he’s so little that he can get through it. He knows how to read his blocks great.”
Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer said Sherels is quicker and faster this year, which Sherels credits to his offseason workouts.
“His confidence has gotten higher, and I think he believes in what we’re doing with our scheme,” Priefer said. “Guys are blocking really well for him, and they know when they block hard for him, he’s got a chance to break one.”
Carolina’s Ted Ginn Jr. had a 10-yard punt return in the season opener against the Seahawks, and that remains as the longest return allowed by the unit. There have been 11 returns against Seattle.
Seahawks punter Jon Ryan has an “Aussie”-style kick, similar to Vikings punter Jeff Locke, and has been the main source for the team’s punt coverage success. With this style of punt, kicks have a backspin that allow for a longer hang time relative to the distance, which is a few yards shorter than the traditional punt.
Ryan is 27th in the league, averaging 43.7 yards a punt, but the Seahawks are tied for third with 15 fair catches allowed. It makes it difficult for Ryan to outkick his coverage, especially with the quickness of Seahawks gunners Jeremy Lane and Byron Maxwell.
“That punt, they kind of know exactly where it’s going to be ... it’s a very controlled distance and controlled hang time,” Locke said. “They’ve timed it up great where they’ve got guys right on the ball when it’s coming down.”
Sherels smiled at Carroll’s notion that he was the NFL’s best punt returner. He said he doesn’t think about his ranking as a returner because it’s a distraction.
“I’ve never heard that,” said Sherels in response to Carroll’s praise. “I’m just going to try and help my team this week and hopefully get one and return it for a touchdown.”
A tall order for the 5-10 Sherels, but one he’s looking forward to.