The Vikings’ lead in Philadelphia lasted 13 seconds.
After Blair Walsh cleared the uprights on a 48-yard field goal, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer trusted his coverage team with a mortar kick, which sent the ball on a high arch to the Eagles’ 2-yard line. Walsh aimed away from Eagles returner Wendell Smallwood, who the week prior returned one for a touchdown in Washington.
From the backside of the play, Vikings linebacker and special teams ace Audie Cole saw the Eagles’ blocking scheme come together. A pair of double teams walled off the Vikings’ inside help, widening the crease for Eagles returner Josh Huff.
“Getting off a double team is tough,” Cole said. “You just have to fight and do anything you can, because once you get double teamed, they’re holding you. I mean, you can hold a guy on a double team, that’s just how it is. You can hold them all you want.”
A trip, a whiff and some “poor effort,” as Mike Zimmer described, further enabled Huff’s 98-yard return for a touchdown. The Vikings then trailed 7-3 and would never regain the lead in Sunday’s loss.
The coverage gaffe continues some recent kickoff issues for the Vikings as they’ve allowed a 30-yard return or longer in each of the last three games.
“I’m not going to get too worried about one return,” Cole said. “I think we’re going to continue to do well and I don’t foresee this being a problem.”
Let’s start from the top.
Often assigned to contain on kickoffs, Marcus Sherels (35) moves around the lineup giving the Vikings an ability to mix up their looks. On this one, Sherels lines up third from the kicker and will lean outside as he runs downfield. Charles Johnson (12) at gunner is heading directly for the ball. That job on the left is typically held by safety Andrew Sendejo, who injured his ankle in the first quarter and was replaced by Johnson. As safety Jayron Kearse filled in on defense for Sendejo, fullback Zach Line (48) stepped into the kickoff team.
“On teams, sometimes you never know who’s going to be out there come game day,” Cole said. “That’s why we do stuff all training camp and offseason, so when you get put in there you know what to do. So far I think we’ve all been playing pretty well, except for a few returns. I think we’ll be all right.”
With Huff (11) set to receive at the Eagles’ 2, they put two helmets apiece on the Line and linebacker Edmond Robinson (51) with three blockers coming underneath to set up the return. Defensive end Justin Trattou (94) tries to split the double teams while Cole (57) balances staying in his lane and merging on the returner.
“They got us on this return,” Cole said. “They ran like a double. They doubled our three and doubled our four and we have to make up for it. We have to squeeze off the back side. Myself, I need to get farther over. For us on the right side, you have to keep your leverage, but at the same time you have to know, you have to be smart. Squeeze enough to make the play, but you have to keep your leverage so they don’t cut it to the back side. It’s tricky.”
Johnson (12) cuts to the inside of his blocker, opening a lane on the outside. Sherels forces Huff back inside, where there’s little help. Trattou (94) is tripped up while squeezing between the double teams and Line (48) tries to spin out of the double team. Walsh is the last to touch Huff, who breezes past the whiffed tackle on his way to the end zone.
“He didn’t fight back into the double team,” Zimmer said of Line. “He took the easy way. Then one of the guys that was going to the ball got tripped and fell down. Then we had poor effort on the other side. I’ll address those issues as well.”