CHARLOTTE – The Vikings had mustered one first down while giving up 10 points in two Carolina possessions when Mike Priefer’s special teams began turning Cam Newton’s smile upside down.
“That’s what we’re supposed to do,” the Vikings special teams coordinator said Sunday after the Vikings snapped Carolina’s 14-game home winning streak with a 22-10 victory at Bank of America Stadium. “Complementary football to the max. A great team win.”
The path to victory started with Jeff Locke’s second of seven punts. He launched it 62 yards, got a good bounce inside the 10 and watched as veteran gunner Marcus Sherels swatted the ball backward before it crossed the goal line. It was downed at the 7 and moved back to the 4 because of a Carolina penalty.
Three snaps later, the Vikings trailed 10-2 on Danielle Hunter’s safety sack of Newton.
“I’d say this is the best I’ve punted in back-to-back games,” said Locke, who has had eight of 14 punts downed inside the 20 the past two weeks. “And our defense is so good. If we can pin teams back like this, we can win a lot of games.”
The defense came to life after that punt. The offense took a while longer, finishing the first half with two first downs and 34 total yards.
Yet the Vikings only trailed 10-8 because Sherels and Priefer’s special teams struck again with a 54-yard punt return for a touchdown late in the second quarter. That extended Sherels’ franchise record for career punt return touchdowns to four.
“We got the punt we wanted and the guys did a great job blocking it,” Sherels said. “They made my job easy all the way to the end zone.”
Priefer said he expected punter Andy Lee to outkick his coverage, which he did on the touchdown return. When Sherels fielded the punt, the nearest Panther was eight yards away. It also helped that the left gunner blockers — Mackensie Alexander and Andrew Sendejo — took their man completely out of the play.
Sherels made a juke to his left, shot through a small crease, got two nice blocks from Audie Cole and Anthony Harris, and was gone.
“And Adam [Thielen], who tried to block the punt, was alert enough to come around and block the punter,” Priefer said. “And it was over.”
If Priefer ever needs an opponent reference for a head coaching job, a Carolina Panther will be at the top of the list. The last time these teams met, in 2014, the Vikings won 31-13 while becoming only the fifth team in NFL history to return two blocked punts for touchdowns in the same game.
Priefer’s impact went beyond Sherels’ touchdown. After Locke’s first punt Sunday, Priefer pulled the trigger on Cordarrelle Patterson as a gunner covering punts.
“Cordarrelle is our new secret weapon,” said Locke, who averaged 48.4 yards with a net of 45.6. “You should have seen him in practice this week. I knew he would show up big on Sunday.”
Priefer said he’s been grooming Patterson as a gunner for a long time. The size and speed are a natural fit, but Priefer needed to be sure about the instincts and tackling ability.
Patterson passed on both accounts. He downed a 58-yarder at the 2, leading to a three-and-out, and tackled Ted Ginn for a 1-yard loss on a 50-yard punt, leading to another three-and-out.
Patterson also passed from an attitude standpoint. The former first-round draft pick and the league’s leader in kick return average said he loves life as a gunner.
“It was fun,” Patterson said. “I think [Carolina] thought it was going to be a trick play when I went in there. Every time I was out there, they were yelling, ‘84 is in, 84 is in.’ But I just did my job. If you need me on kickoffs, punts, punt return, whatever. It doesn’t matter. I just want to help this team win.”
On Sunday, all of Priefer’s specialists had a hand in jump-starting the entire team.