Special teams take Vikings to 3-1

  • Article by: DAN WIEDERER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 1, 2012 - 8:53 AM

A well-executed game plan was most evident in special teams highlights, but the Vikings also stuffed the run and neutralized Calvin Johnson.

DETROIT - Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer knew something was there. All week long, the always caffeinated Priefer kept peppering his kickoff return team with instruction and encouragement, sensing vulnerability in Detroit's coverage unit and wanting his players to sense the golden opportunity.

"Coach Priefer was calling touchdown," Percy Harvin said. "All week. He knew it was a great chance for us to score."

That kind of prediction would be one thing if it was just hollow bravado. But it was quite another when Priefer detailed the plans and engaged his players in the prep work, dialing up a simple yet explosive return designed for Harvin to be Harvin.

So when Detroit's Jason Hanson boomed Sunday's opening kickoff 5 yards right of the bold blue "S" in the Lions end zone, the Vikings knew they had something special.

"In our first special teams kickoff return meeting, we saw some things," coach Leslie Frazier said. "And we pointed out that if everybody holds their block, Percy's going to score. It was obvious."

As practiced, Harvin immediately veered right across the field and waited for 10 teammates to seal the Lions' coverage. With key blocks, first from Matt Asiata and Rhett Ellison and then from Tyrone McKenzie and Robert Blanton, Harvin made two simple moves and raced untouched up the right sideline.

Just like that, in 105 yards and 12 seconds, the Vikings had the major catalyst for their 20-13 upset.

Priefer could not have been more ecstatic. And his excitement only heightened as the special teams delivered repeated jolts of electricity, scoring all 20 of the team's points.

Harvin's return fireworks were matched in the second half by a 77-yard punt return touchdown by Marcus Sherels. Rookie kicker Blair Walsh made field goals from 49 and 27 yards.

And Chris Kluwe delivered clutch punts at the end of each half, the last one pinning the Lions at their own 2 with 1:42 left -- 98 yards from a tying score with no timeouts left.

Yep, it was a banner day for Priefer's special teams.

"He'll get a nice big hug," Frazier said. "For sure."

There were plenty of hugs to go around in the jubilant visiting locker room. In the unpredictable NFL, the Vikings are the team that has suddenly caught a wave of positive energy, surfing it like they're Kelly Slater.

Yep, figured by everyone outside of Winter Park to be irrelevant for the 2012 season, the Vikings are now 3-1 and alone atop the NFC North -- for 24 hours at least.

They're also blessed with a schedule that provides three October home games.

Sunday's victory wasn't perfect. But it included many of the accomplishments Frazier wants every week.

The turnover battle? Won, thanks to Mikel Leshoure's third-quarter fumble, forced and recovered by safety Jamarca Sanford.

Run defense? Sturdy, surrendering only 55 yards on 20 Detroit carries.

Strong ground attack? Present, thanks to Adrian Peterson's 102-yard day.

No wonder Frazier seemed as pumped as he's ever been as a head coach.

The Vikings are resilient, they're focused and, man, they're packing quite a pop right now. Just ask Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, who managed five catches for 54 yards. But Johnson also had took big shots several times. The most notable came with 2 minutes left in the first half when Stafford put a 13-yard touchdown dart right onto the 81 of Johnson's jersey.

For a second, it looked like Detroit would pull within 13-10. Until both Vikings safeties, Sanford and Harrison Smith, sandwiched Johnson.

Smith's textbook shot sent the ball skidding into the turf for an incompletion. Detroit settled for a field goal.

"That was a good collision," Sanford said. "I'm glad Harrison was there. Harrison cleaned him on up for us, man."

Johnson was priority 1, 2 and 3 in the Vikings' defensive game plan. As Sanford summarized: "Know where Calvin's at. Know where 81 at every time."

The Vikings' ability to neutralize Johnson stymied Detroit's offense. The Lions' touchdown came with 2:56 left.

Just like that, an 11-game division losing streak ended.

More significant, the Vikings matched last season's win total before the calendar flipped to October.

And a surprising Week 3 upset of San Francisco can no longer be categorized as a "lightning in a bottle" triumph.

"We're playing smart, tough, disciplined football," Frazier said. "Combine that with the type of players and the character we have on this team, we'll have a chance in every ballgame."

Dan Wiederer • dan.wiederer@startribune.com

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