Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.
Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.
After delivering a near flawless special teams effort in a season opening win over Jacksonville, Mike Priefer’s unit had its struggles in last week’s upset of San Francisco. The Vikings special teams coordinator met with reporters Thursday and offered his diagnoses for a handful of things that went wrong against the Niners.
Yes, there were the huge second half kickoff returns by San Francisco’s Kyle Williams, one for 94 yards and another for 50. And Priefer offered his general assessment of what went wrong with his coverage on those.
“Number one, they blocked us up well,” he said. “We knew going in they were very good at it. And we did not do a great job with our lane integrity.”
But a couple of more minor mistakes had Priefer equally aggravated. Take Chris Kluwe’s first punt of the day, for example, a wobbly 35-yarder in which his drop was too far inside.
And then there was Kluwe’s best punt which came with 13:19 left and the Vikings protecting a 24-13 lead. From the 42, Kluwe bombed a perfect directional kick that landed just a couple yards in front of the right pylon with cornerback A.J. Jefferson coming off a block well and blazing down the sideline with a chance to down the ball inside the 2. Instead, Jefferson got to the punt, corralled it but dropped it on the goal line for a touchback, costing the Vikings valuable field position.
“That’s a heartbreaker right there,” Priefer said. “[Jefferson needs to] throw it back a little further. Or even if you’re near the sideline, we’ve talked about knocking it out of bounds. And A.J. hasn’t been around us. I mean, he was coached well at Arizona, don’t get me wrong. But there are little minute detail things that we talk about all the time that the more he hears it, the better he’ll respond.”
Around the block
Priefer was much more pleased with the special teams effort at the close of the first half with Letroy Guion blocking a 43-yard David Akers kick with 52 seconds left and rookie Blair Walsh capitalizing a few moments later by nailing a 52-yard field goal of his own. Instead of holding a 14-6 halftime advantage, the Vikings led 17-3.
“Huge swing against a very good football team,” Priefer said. “It gave us a lot of momentum going into the half.”
As for Guion’s big moment? The energetic defensive tackle combined with Matt Kalil to get great push against the 49ers’ front. And it’s Priefer’s belief that had Guion not got his hand on Akers’ kick, Kalil would have.
“Letroy comes off the ball so hard and so low and he’s got great timing,” Priefer said. “Being a defensive lineman, it’s a little bit easier for him than it is for a guy like Matt Kalil, who’s obviously going off a snap count. So our goal is to get Matt even better with his get-off and have those two working together and continuing to work together as the year goes on.”
If it seems like Percy Harvin has no caution when fielding kicks deep in his own end zone and bringing them out, that’s by design.
“Overly aggressive is not a term [with us],” Priefer said. “We’re going to be aggressive. We’re going to get after it. And we’re going to bring it out when we have an opportunity to bring it out. And the only way we keep him in is determined by a situation. Up by 10, 4 minutes left to go in the game, let’s give the ball to the offense at the 20, try to grind it out in the 4-minute situation and give us the best field position we can. But I’ll be honest with you, I think with our returners back there and the guys we have blocking for them, we have a chance to score every time.”
Harvin caught one kick against San Francisco six yards deep and returned it only to the 14. But that’s OK. Priefer wants his kick return unit to have a fearless confidence.
“If I look at Percy and say, ‘We need to keep this one in,’ he’d look at me cross-eyed. He believes he’s going to score every time. And I think the guys around him believe he’s going to score every time. We’ve darn near broke about three this year.”
For the year, Harvin has returned eight kickoffs for an average of 30 yards, ranking eighth in the NFL heading into Week 4. The Vikings have taken touchbacks on five of the 17 kickoffs they’ve received.
He keeps going and going and going …
Priefer hasn’t needed much time this week to review the strengths and weaknesses of Lions kicker Jason Hanson, who’s been booting balls in Detroit since 1992. Hanson is in his 21st season now. And last week, after punter Ben Graham suffered a season-ending calf injury, Hanson was called into emergency duty as a punter as well. Hanson’s busy day in Tennessee included three punts for an average of 39.3 yards. He also added field goals from 47, 53, 33 and 26 yards and made three extra points.
Hanson was reportedly unhappy with his punting effort.
Here's a number that suggests Percy Harvin will be on the field the first time Jacksonville kicks off on Sunday at Mall of America Field.
That's the average yards per kickoff return for the teams that played the Jaguars this preseason. That also was the worst kick coverage performance in the league during the preseason.
Granted, it's a number that scrubs and guys who are no longer on the team helped compile. But it's still a fair comparison because it's not like the other 31 teams were using their best players throughout the preseason.
A look at who the Jaguars have at kicker suggests the issue is coverage-related rather than kick-related.
"[Josh Scobee] has a big-time leg," Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer said today. "He's outstanding. He's very, very good. He's one of the better combination kickoff-field goal guys in the league."
The Jaguars kicked off 21 times in the preseason. Eleven of them (52.4 percent) were touchbacks.
Harvin is one of the best kick returners in the league, but the Vikings are extra careful not to give him too many touches, particularly when his value on offense skyrockets with fellow receiver Jerome Simpson suspended and running back Adrian Peterson limited at best as he returns from his left knee reconstruction.
Asked if he'll have Harvin at kickoff returner on Sunday, Priefer said, "I hope so. That's the plan. Anytime you have the best athlete on your team out there as your kickoff returner, that's what you want."
Prepping for MJD: Defensive coordinator Alan Williams isn't buying the Jaguars' claims that Maurice Jones-Drew, last year's league rushing champion with 1,606 yards, will be relegated to use on third downs because his contract holdout just ended this week.
"Did you believe that?" Williams asked reporters earlier today.
Not really, now that you mention it.
"I've seen him the last few years while I was at Indy," said Williams, the former Colts defensive backs coach. "Preseason or not, I'm not sure that if he was there that he would have been playing in the preseason anyway. So I don't take any stock in that. We'll be ready for him on first, second, third and fourth down. He's a guy you have to pay attention to. We're going to know where he's at at all times."
No advantage to facing young QBs: On the flip said, Williams said something himself that was hard to swallow.
Asked if he thinks it could be an advantage to face so many young quarterbacks early on this season, Williams said:
"I don't know because when you have a young quarterback, you don't have a ton of film on that guy. We don't have a ton of film on what [Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert] is doing in [coach Mike] Mularkey's system. I don't view that as a good thing. When you know what you're getting, you have a little bit of a comfort zone. Right now, we don't with this quarterback. No, it's not a comfort zone for our secondary whatsoever. I'd rather be able to prepare them for what we think they're going to see."
Well, there's plenty of film out there on Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. But it's safe to say the Vikings would prefer facing three rookies and two second-year guys in their first nine games.
Rookie as `calming' influence: If you think rookie free safety Harrison Smith looks mature beyond his greenhorn status, Williams agrees with you.
"He's a physical ballplayer, he's smart and he does not look like a rookie out there in terms of the plays overwhelming him," Williams said. "He looks like he belongs. It's nice to have a guy out there that settles the defense, settles the secondary. We also have some other guys. [Antoine Winfield] is a guy who is a calming influence on your secondary, on your team. So he's another guy who is like that, gets lined up, is smart and who plays smart."
Asked if he's ever had a rookie be a "calming influence" in the secondary, Williams said:
"I've played with rookies before. When I was in Indy, Antoine Bethea was a rookie and played every ballgame through the Super Bowl and played great ball. Bob Sanders, when he came in as a rookie, he played when he got healthy he played a ton of ball. That's OK. As long as they're good football players. And Harrison is a good football player."
Branch will move around: Reports on second-round draft pick Andre Branch say the young defensive end will be a factor on a pretty good Jaguars defense this year.
Said Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave: "For a rookie, he's very good. He'll be matched up against [left tackle] Matt Kalil a bunch. On third downs, they'll switch him over to [right tackle] Phil [Loadholt's] side. He's been very active and really impressive for a young guy."
Peterson getting between 25 and 35 reps in practice: Musgrave said "there's not too much doubt" that running back Adrian Peterson will be able to play on Sunday. "We've seen progress every day," Musgrave said. In case you're the last person in the Milky Way that didn't know, Peterson had his left knee reconstructed a little more than eight months ago. The question of every nanosecond between now and kickoff will continue to be "Will Adrian play on Sunday?'
Musgrave said Peterson's reps have been increased from 18 last week to between 25 and 35 this week. Asked how much contact has come with those reps, Musgrave said, "I'd say he's taken what a normal player would take in practice." And that means very little contact, no tackling to the ground and no targeting of the legs by defenders.
Musgrave said Peterson's practice load is about equal to what Toby Gerhart is getting.
Looking for a young up-and-coming player to keep an eye on during Friday’s preseason home game against Buffalo? Cornerback Josh Robinson is worth watching.
Robinson is likely to see his first NFL game action against the Bills, eager to showcase the speed, confidence and body control that convinced the Vikings to draft him in the third round in April.
The 21-year-old Robinson pulled a hamstring in the first full practice of training camp July 27 and missed more than a week of practice. And while he returned to drills last week, he was held out of the first preseason game in San Francisco as a precaution. Now, Robinson will be thrown into the mix, likely to see significant time against Buffalo with the second- and third-unit defenses.
Robinson’s upside has head coach Leslie Frazier excited.
“The burst he has separates him from all the other players that we have in the secondary,” Frazier said. “He can close and go from point A to point B as fast as anybody we have or that I’ve seen … A lot of guys can run fast straight ahead but it doesn’t show up when you put pads on. But in his case, it shows up.”
On Monday morning, Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer lauded the poise of kicker Blair Walsh after the rookie handled the gusty winds at Candlestick Park with relative ease. Walsh nailed field goals of 39 and 26 yards in Friday night’s 17-6 preseason loss to San Francisco and also was impressive on his three kickoffs, despite the swirling wind.
On Tuesday, punter Chris Kluwe marveled at the Candlestick conditions that were present for the preseason opener.
“That was the worst wind I’ve ever played in at Candlestick,” Kluwe said. “It was almost as bad as Chicago [in 2009].”
Kluwe had six punts Friday, averaging 40.3 yards per boot.
“I was happy to finish the way I did,” Kluwe said. “That’s one of those games where you just try and survive it and not hit like a 10-yard punt. I had one [a 30-yarder in the third quarter] that really got caught up in the wind. But at that point, what do you do? I can’t control the weather.”
Here’s the good news for Kluwe and Walsh. Mother Nature’s elements won’t be an issue for a while. The Vikings have only one game outdoors between now and November – a Week 6 game at Washington. During the regular season, 13 of the team’s 16 games will be played indoors.
Looking for leadership
Frazier also had kind words Tuesday for strongside linebacker Chad Greenway, whose presence and guidance will be key this season as the Vikings try to determine what they can expect consistently from middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley and weakside linebacker Erin Henderson.
“[We need] his leadership probably more than anything,” Frazier said. “We expect him to play well but we need that intangible in the locker room and on the field in the huddle. We need that great leader for some of the young guys on the team.”
Even as Adrian Peterson works back into the mix, odds are good the Vikings will start the year with Toby Gerhart getting a majority of the carries. Frazier was asked directly Tuesday whether he could envision Peterson being a workhorse back when the season opens Sept. 9 against Jacksonville.
“There’s nothing to say that he could,” Frazier said. “But I don’t know if there were many things that were said that at seven-and-a-half months he would be prepared to do what he’s doing now. You don’t really want to put parameters on his rehabilitation, you want to just let it go and see where it takes us."
-- Both Frazier and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave asserted that Joe Webb’s struggles against the 49ers were partly attributable to poor offensive line play. Webb (4-for-11, 20 yards, sacked twice) will get ample opportunity Friday to redeem himself. Said Musgrave: “Part of what he dealt with was [there were] so many things so many guys in front of him were not able to do. And that affected some of the things he wanted to do at the quarterback position … He’s probably the least experienced of all of our quarterbacks as far as playing the position over a long period of time. You just have to continue to let him get reps and let him development.”
-- Defensive end Everson Griffen is dealing with a minor knee injury that kept him out of Tuesday’s practice and could put his availability for Friday’s game in jeopardy.
When Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer jogged onto the field in San Francisco for pre-game warm-ups Friday night, the first thing he felt was the breeze.
If it’s even fair to call such a swirling, uncomfortable wind a breeze.
Probably closer to a gale.
Yep, good ol’ Candlestick Park.
Yet Priefer didn’t bring the conditions up to his rookie kicker, Blair Walsh.
“I didn’t say a word,” Priefer said. “He kind of smiled at me when I first made eye contact with him. But I had gone out there early. And right away I was like ‘Oh God. This is going to be fun.’ But he did a real nice job in pre-game and he just didn’t worry about it.”
Walsh’s poise carried over to the game where he accounted for all of the Vikings’ points in their 17-6 loss to the 49ers, booting field goals of 39 and 26 yards – one on each side of the field.
“I think because he had such a good pre-game, that really helped him,” Priefer said. “He missed a few when he was experimenting with the cross-wind [before the game]. And then of course, the wind changed completely from the time we went in after pre-game to the time we went out when the game started.
Walsh also boomed three kickoffs, one out the back of the end zone for a touchback and the other two at least 7 yards deep that helped pin San Francisco inside the 20 to start those possessions. Not once did the rookie kicker seem frazzled.
“I was very proud of the way he reacted,” Priefer said. “Because I’ve been around young kickers before and their eyes get real big. Because they want to make a good impression, like any young player. And he did not [get wide eyes]. He came out and did a great job for us.”
Priefer also loved that Walsh spent the pre-game showing off his leg strength in close proximity to 49ers veteran David Akers. During one sequence, Akers came up short on a pre-game kick from about 55 yards. Just behind him, Walsh responded by hammering a kick from 60-plus.
“I love that competition,” Priefer said. “[While in Denver and Kansas City], I was in the AFC West with Shane Lechler and [Sebastian] Janikowski. And they did it every time we played them. They’d go out there and show off in pre-game. And of course, I had [Matt] Prater in Denver, who pretty much matched Janikowski. But this young man [Walsh] has a big-time leg. And I think the more confident he gets and the more success he has, the better kicker he’s going to be in the long run for us.”
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