Dan Wiederer began covering the Vikings in 2011, enthusiastically delivering insight on the team across the Star Tribune's print and digital products. Prior to joining the Access Vikings team, he spent seven seasons covering ACC basketball at The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer. He also covered the Chicago Bears in 2003 and 2004. Follow him on Twitter @StribDW.
Mark Craig has covered football and the NFL the past 20 years, including the Browns from 1991-95 and the Vikings and the NFL since 2003. Since 2008, Craig has served as one of the 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. He can be followed on Twitter at @markcraignfl.
In a season where the Vikings have made so many dramatic improvements in taking care of the little things, their effort on kick coverage has been both terrific and under-appreciated. Sure, Blair Walsh has produced touchbacks on 47 of his 73 kickoffs this season. At the same time, the Vikings haven’t allowed a kickoff to be returned past the 25 yard line since Week 5, leaving special teams coordinator thrilled with his players’ buy-in and commending the front office for supplying so many high-character, hard-working young players.
“Special teams in some teams is kind of an insult,” Priefer said, “where here we’ve got guys itching to play special teams. And I think that’s the mentality and the culture we’ve established here that’s really made a difference.”
Last week in St. Louis, the Vikings made kickoff stops at the Rams 12 and 14. A week earlier, they stopped the Bears at their own 17, 11, 14 and 15.
So is Priefer tempted to have Walsh take a little off his kickoffs to bait returners to come out with them?
“I’m always tempted to do that, but that’s kind of my ego kicking in,” Priefer said. “I think what’s best for the team a lot of times is a touch back.”
As for when Priefer noticed the serious investment in special teams?
"We had a few guys last year and then I think even the guys that were here last year, this year have said, ‘You know what, this is kind of fun. We have a kicker who’s going to give us a chance on kick coverage, we have a punter who’s going to give us a chance on punt coverage, we’ve got returners that make plays and can make people miss even if I don’t get a perfect block.’ So probably at the end of spring going into training camp I was pretty excited about the direction we were going."
Jared Allen went into last year's season finale against the Bears needing 4 1/2 sacks to break Michael Strahan's NFL single-season mark of 22 1/2.
Strahan survived as Allen had 3 1/2 sacks to finish with a team-record 22.
This year, Strahan's grip on the record doesn't look nearly has strong heading into the final two weeks of the season. J.J. Watt, a five-technique end in Houston's 3-4 front, and Aldon Smith, an outside linebacker in the 49ers' 3-4 front, are tied with 19 1/2 sacks.
Allen said he thinks the record will fall. At some point.
"I said it at the beginning of this year that I think 25 is a realistic number in the way this league is, especially with the 3-4 linebackers," Allen said. "You got Aldon Smith, who basically is a defensive end. You DeMarcus Ware, who basically is a defensive end with the athletic ability of a linebacker standing up and coming off the edge. Those are serious matchup problems. I think it's definitely attainable."
Watt already has more sacks than any 3-4 defensive end has had since sacks became an official stat in 1982.
"What J.J. Watt is doing is crazy from that five-technique position," Allen said. "That's like a once-in-a-lifetime, praise-God-that-thing-is-happening because you don't see that very often."
Not ready to name Foster No. 2: Allen was asked about Sunday's game having "the two best running backs in the league." Allen wasn't so sure about that one. He isn't ready to put Houston's Arian Foster No. 2 just yet.
"I would say Adrian [Peterson] is the best, without a doubt," Allen said. "But after what [Seattle's] Marshawn Lynch did to us [124 yards and a touchdown], hopefully Arian Foster doesn't do the same. Maybe we'll say [Arian] is third [best] right now."
Foster is fourth in the league in rushing with 1,250 yards. Lynch is No. 2 with 1,379 yards. Peterson is first with 1,812 yards.
More on Watt: Allen on Watt's strengths: "He doesn't try to get outside of himself. He does what he does. He has one move and he has a counter off of it. If he doesn't get there, he tries to affect the game in all facets. He bats the ball down and he can play right and left, so he's creating matchup problems, whether it's in the three-technique of the five-technique. The energy level and the effort he puts into his craft is high right now. His will not to be stopped. You have to have things go your way and have to have a couple of sacks fall into your arms. He's got everything going his way right now."
Allen said there are advantages to moving from side to side, "if you can do both."
"You're not stagnant," he said. "Teams can't game plan specifically for you. You can take advantage if one guard or one tackle is weaker than the other. I'm kind of old school in a way that, `Here I am. Left tackle is supposed to be your best tackle. Right end is supposed to be your best end. Let's see who is best.' This year, I've seemed to face left tackles, tight ends and running backs. I'd like to get just one left tackle. That would be nice.
"My theory is don't go putting me on the left side, where I'm not taking reps. You got to get used to doing things with opposite hands and opposite feet. So for me, I'm a little fish out of water on the left. Why handicap two people by putting someone over on the right. I know what I can do on the right and we have people who can do stuff on the left."
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