Mike Priefer’s cellphone rang, as it usually does soon after a Vikings game. Chuck Priefer, as always, was on the other end. No greetings were necessary between son and father.
“I picked up the phone and we just laughed,” said Mike, the Vikings special teams coordinator. “My dad was Marty Mornhinweg’s special teams coordinator in Detroit [in 2002] when Marty won the overtime coin toss and chose to kick off. It didn’t work out so well for him.”
But it did Sunday when Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, under much different circumstances and a new overtime rule, made the same decision in a 21-18 overtime victory over the Rams at blustery TCF Bank Stadium.
“Mike asked me before he did it,” Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “The circumstances called for it. But afterward, I did laugh and say, ‘You know the last guy who did that got fired.’ ”
Zimmer won’t be fired any time soon. He’s 6-2, tied with the Packers atop the NFC North and enjoying a four-game winning streak that has brought to life his notion that a balanced, old-school style of football can succeed with talent, intelligence and an unselfish understanding of how offense, defense and special teams can and should complement one another.
“Mike didn’t bat an eye on that coin toss,” Priefer said. “It was, ‘This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to get the touchback, pin them down on their 20, return the punt to midfield and go kick the field goal and win the game.’ ”
And that’s exactly what happened.
In poor Marty’s case, his 5-27 stint will always be remembered for the Lions never touching the ball in that windy, 20-17 overtime loss to the Bears. In Zimmer’s case, an opening-drive field goal is no longer sudden death. And Zimmer’s call also was backed by a stout defense, the loss of starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and the fact that Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein had used the favorable wind earlier to kick a 61-yard field goal, the longest against the Vikings in team history.
“I didn’t think it was really a big deal,” Zimmer said.
But the fact that it wasn’t a big deal is what actually made it a big deal in today’s offensive-oriented game.
“I’ve never been on a team that made that call,” said Turner, who’s in his 31st season as an NFL coach. “I don’t think there are many who can say they have been.”
Defense is king
Nearly a full page of the Raiders’ news release this week is dedicated to the exploits of second-year quarterback Derek Carr and the exclusive lists he can join if he were to reach 300 yards and four touchdowns for a third straight game on Sunday.
By the way, the Raiders lost 38-35 in Pittsburgh last week.
Meanwhile, Bridgewater doesn’t have the head-turning stats. But he is 4-0 when throwing for fewer than 200 yards this season. Of course, Adrian Peterson also leads the league in rushing.
“It’s very old-style football, and that comes from Coach Zimmer,” Vikings Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller said. “Play conservative, don’t make mistakes, don’t get penalties. It’s fundamental football.
“It’s tough to play that style because of the nature of today’s game. You have to have good players who buy into that philosophy. But if they can pull it off, it will pay off with huge benefits for them in the long run because this offense has a lot of power and big-play potential that could break loose as it develops and grows.”
In 2013, the Vikings team ranked 30th in third-down defense (44.16) and last in scoring defense (30.0). Today, Zimmer’s team ranks second in third-down defense (29.7), second in scoring defense (17.5) and is the only team that hasn’t allowed a team to score more than 23 points.
How gritty were the Vikings last week? Well, they lost their quarterback and were led by their nose tackle, Linval Joseph, who won NFC defensive player of the week.
It was Joseph who set the tone that contained rookie running back sensation Todd Gurley. It was Joseph who tackled Gurley for a loss one play after Bridgewater threw an interception. And it was Joseph who tackled Gurley for an even bigger loss on the first snap of overtime.
Those tackles led to two three-and-out possessions in which the Rams — who were 2-for-16 on third downs — lost a total of 16 yards. Both times, the Vikings offense answered with go-ahead scores.
“It’s just team ball,” Joseph said. “Just doing my job.”
Really special teams
By now, everyone knows Vikings kicker Blair Walsh has made 15 consecutive field goal attempts, including a pair of walk-off winners the past two weeks. And you might know that Marcus Sherels ranks sixth among NFL punt returners (11.2).
But did you know that the Vikings also have a league-low three special teams penalties this season? Or that they have only five special teams penalties in their past 16 games?
“Knock on wood,” Priefer said. “Our first eight games last year, we had 16 penalties. It was unbelievable.”
“I won’t play guys if they get penalties,” Priefer said. “Last year, we had some problems early and we benched guys. We benched [Antone] Exum. We benched Jabari Price. One of them was inactive one game because he got special teams penalties.”
There are certain starters Priefer isn’t allowed to use, but even some of them, such as safety Harrison Smith, sit in on meetings and are attentive. Nickel corner Captain Munnerlyn, who was a punt returner in Carolina, was used for three games to block gunners on punt returns. He had one of the key blocks that set up Sherels’ 65-yard punt return for a touchdown at Chicago.
“We have such a great locker room that guys want to do anything to help us win,” Priefer said. “Captain and I joke around with me using him. He always tells me, ‘But Prief, I’m a punt returner.’ I said, ‘Cap, when you came out of South Carolina, I had you ranked like 24th out of 20 returners.’ And we start laughing.”
Priefer’s preparation is so detailed that he pulled Munnerlyn from that blocking role in favor of Exum because St. Louis had bigger gunners. It helped in overtime when Rams punter Johnny Hekker outkicked his coverage with a 63-yard punt. Sherels returned the line drive 26 yards to the Vikings 49-yard line.
“Hekker’s punt would have been a nightmare for me,” Priefer said. “That was 63 yards with a 3.7-second hang time. With Jeff [Locke], we’re really big on not outkicking our coverage. My goal is 45 yards with 4.5 hang time. If we’re at 42 and 4.8, even better. That really helps the defense.”
The Vikings are happy that Bridgewater understands and accepts a complementary role. And while they want to see more consistent accuracy from him on the deep balls he has been missing, they’re also not worried because he has proven he can pull his weight.
Down seven points in the final five minutes at Chicago, he went 6-for-7 for 106 yards and a touchdown while scoring 10 points in two possessions. He also threw for more than 300 yards to help erase a 17-6 deficit at Detroit the week before.
“In the passing game, we’ve turned the ball over twice in our territory,” Turner said. “Look at other teams and there are quarterbacks who have multiple interceptions returned for touchdowns, turnovers inside their 20. We’re not making the major errors.
“I don’t know that we’re being extra careful. We’re being protective in our play selection. I think we’re playing the game to be smart. Right now, our biggest emphasis is making sure we don’t break down in protection and we don’t give up negative plays, whether it be sacks, sack-fumbles, quarterback gets hit and the ball goes up in the air, the kind of plays you see when you watch the highlights on Sunday night.”
But that’s not to say the Vikings are content playing that way.
“There’s a fine line there,” Zimmer said. “You don’t want to go crazy because you’ve got Adrian in the backfield. But in my opinion, Teddy is a playmaker, and I think we want him to continue to try to make plays with some of these. Sometimes he’s a little bit too much of complementary football [player], maybe.”
Of course, the beauty is being able to work on this problem while winning games in which it makes perfect sense to kick the ball after winning the overtime coin toss.
“Hey, that wasn’t the first time they bailed us out,” said Peterson, who had 21 yards on four carries to set up the game-winning field goal. “I would say in all phases, this is the best group I’ve been a part of. The thing that stands out to me is we have all three phases in sync and guys are playing their hearts out for one another.”