Hartman: Vikings' gamble on rookie kicker Walsh pays off in season opener

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 9, 2012 - 11:25 PM

The sixth-round pick from Georgia went 4-for-4 in his debut, including a clutch 55-yarder at the end of regulation.

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Vikings placekicker Blair Walsh kicked a 38-yard field goal in overtime, the winning points in a 26-23 victory over Jacksonville on Sunday.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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Nothing against Ryan Longwell, who will go down as one of the greatest placekickers in NFL history. But as accurate and dependable as Longwell was during his long career in the NFL with the Packers and the Vikings, he wouldn't have had the leg strength to kick a 55-yard field goal like rookie Blair Walsh did Sunday to send the Vikings-Jaguars game into overtime, or to reach the end zone on nearly every kickoff as Walsh did in the game.

Longwell made 22 field goals of 50 yards or farther during his career. His longest was from 55 yards, and he did it only once, in 2007. But like Walsh's kick, it was a dramatic one -- it gave the Vikings a 34-31 victory over the Bears in Chicago as time expired.

And Longwell should know that it wasn't a snap decision to let him go after the Vikings signed Walsh, one of three college kickers drafted in 2012 and the big star of Sunday's 26-23 victory over Jacksonville.

According to Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman, the subject was discussed for some time before the final decision was reluctantly made to gamble on Walsh and let Longwell go.

Special teams coach Mike Priefer pushed hard to get Walsh, whom he had worked out at the NFL combine and more than once before the draft. Priefer -- who had coached outstanding kickers with the Giants, Chiefs and Broncos, where he coached one of the great kickers in Jason Elam -- was convinced Walsh could be something special in the NFL despite having a poor senior season at Georgia, going 21-for-35 on field goals after making 20 of 23 during his junior year.

Walsh said he had kicked only one field goal longer in college than his 55-yard kick Sunday, a 56-yarder against Coastal Carolina last year at Georgia. He did say that in high school at Cardinal Gibbons in Boca Raton, Fla., he kicked two field goals from 59 yards out.

But he said with the chance for the Vikings to either go into overtime if he converted at the end of regulation or lose if he failed, the situation was different then any other field-goal attempt in his career.

"I had a good feeling, and as soon as I saw the ball flight and realized it was going to be long enough and staying straight at that point, [I thought] it was going to make it, and it did," Walsh said.

With four seconds left on the clock, Walsh said nobody wanted to talk to him about the kick, but instead, "They just want you to go out there and do it."

Walsh praised snapper Cullen Loeffler and holder Chris Kluwe as "great guys, they had perfect execution on it."

In another recent interview, Walsh told me how confident he was in looking forward to his first NFL season.

"There's always pressure," he said. "At the next level, it's definitely a different type of pressure, but you have to look at having fun and going out there and doing what you have to do."

Walsh credited Priefer with correcting some flaws he had in his kicking style.

"We tweaked some stuff, slowed me down a little bit, and just cleaned up some of the fundamentals," Walsh said. "That's the goal right now -- kick it as long and high as possible."

Defense failed

Defensive end Jared Allen was really upset with the way the Vikings defense played overall, and especially how it allowed the Jaguars to score a go-ahead touchdown when they started their drive at their own 24-yard line with 1:18 left in the game and no timeouts remaining.

"I think the whole game was kind of rough. It was a sloppy day," Allen said. "We have to play a lot better. We gave up way too many yards.

"I thought we didn't play that great. We have a lot of stuff to clean up. We had a chance to win the game at the end, and we can't give up a touchdown with that little time [remaining]. ... From top to bottom we have to address that. We just have to play better."

Allen also was upset about being rotated constantly in and out on defense.

"I always want to be on the field," he said. "I'll take care of that."

Bad time of possession

A big cause for concern on defense, if you check the stats, is how the Jacksonville offense -- one of the worst in the league last season -- was able to dictate the time of possession the entire game.

In the first quarter they had the ball for 10 minutes, 38 seconds, while the Vikings had it for 4:22. In the second quarter, Jacksonville again had the edge, 8:38 to the Vikings' 6:22.

And while the defense played better in the second half, the time of possession remained one-sided, with Jacksonville having the ball for 8:19 in the third period compared to 6:41 for the Vikings, and 9:14 compared to 5:46 in the fourth.

Only in overtime did the Vikings have the time-of-possession advantage, having the ball for 3:54 compared to 1:00 for the Jaguars. For the game Jacksonville had the ball 37:49; the Vikings possessed it for 27:05.

Still, it's a good sign that despite that possession disadvantage, the Vikings offense was able to outgain the Jaguars offense 389-355.

Greenway agrees

Linebacker Chad Greenway agreed with Allen that the defense has to improve on its performance.

"The first half we were giving up some bad plays on third downs, just making little mistakes that hurt us," Greenway said. "In the second half, I think we just settled down and let it come to us."

He also said the defensive coaches didn't make a lot of changes at halftime to stop the effective Jaguars offense, which had 103 yards passing and 67 yards rushing in the first half.

"Schematically we were the same," Greenway said. "Just made some different calls. We didn't change a whole lot, just stayed who we were.

"It kind of felt like what had happened last year, to be honest with you, just losing at the end, losing the lead at the end. You kind of had that feeling that this is all going to happen all over again. But credit our offense and our kicker to come back and make that kick and give us a chance to win it."

But Greenway was confident the poor defense will improve.

"I think we'll be OK," he said. "We made some mistakes, but all in all, I think we're going to be all right."

It better be, because the Vikings will be facing a lot better offenses than the Jaguars offered on Sunday.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com

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