Jeff Locke’s rebound campaign found a new high Sunday.
Locke, the Vikings 27-year-old punter in a contract season, was one slip away from putting the defense on a short field, or worse, surrendering their 30-24 lead on the Cardinals with 2:33 left in the game. With that pressure in front, and his back against his own end zone, Locke turned in a career best.
“Really, I was thinking every other punt,” Locke said.
Not every punt finishes with a Tiger Woods-style fist pump, but it was a Sunday. And Locke had just completed a career-long boot that ended up traveling 72 yards before stopping. Carson Palmer watched the Vikings offense stall at its 15-yard line and suddenly he was taking the field at his own 13, needing a touchdown to win the game. Only after Locke ran nearly the length of the field to celebrate with his teammates.
“I was jacked, yeah,” Locke said. “I think maybe after the first New York punt … I think I gave a little Tiger pump, too, so I think I’ll credit Tiger Woods with that one.”
It was the latest peak in what is shaping into a career-best season for Locke, whose 40.5-yard average net is his longest and tied for 14th in the NFL this season. Locke’s fist pump also made an appearance in the Vikings’ win against the Giants, when a 53-yard punt ended in a recovered fumble. Like this past Sunday, hang time was the lesson Locke applied.
Let’s start in the fourth quarter.
A ball carrier in the open field is not a good sight for a specialist. But before the big punt, Locke made another late-game play that helped save what could’ve been a Cardinals go-ahead touchdown. Locke’s 50-yard punt cleared the desired 4.5-second hang time, however both Vikings gunners struggled to release from their blocks to get down the field.
Cardinals punt returner John Brown went untouched to midfield until Locke and linebacker Audie Cole corralled the 32-yard return.
“Just get him out of bounds,” Locke said. “Luckily Audie, I think it was Audie, made a good play of getting him to the sideline, so I could just try to give him a knock out of bounds. Last line of defense, hang on to whatever you can or get him out.”
The following series, Locke carried some lessons learned with him to the Vikings’ 1-yard line. Hang time is a crucial and overlooked factor as much of the football-viewing world judges punters by distance. What allowed Locke’s 53-yard punt to travel 72 yards was purely the five-plus seconds of hang time, which gave Charles Johnson enough time to throw off Brown as the returner tracked the ball.
“I think maybe as a young punter, as a rookie, I would’ve thought about trying to hit a missile down there to flip the field so to speak,” Locke said. “But, I’ve learned that when I go up with it, try to get hang time, I’m going to get distance, too. So you always try to err on that and go straight up with it.
“Get it up there first, so our gunners can at least get in his face and make a play.”
Both Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians and Brown lamented him not fielding the punt, an error that cost 19 yards for Arizona’s two-minute offense. Locke said he knew they’d caught a break as soon as the ball hit the turf. Brown had signaled for a fair catch, but was seemingly moved off his spot by Johnson. The Cardinals would barely make up that yardage before Danielle Hunter’s sack to seal the Vikings’ win.
“Almost always on the field punts, the spinning punts that turn over, you’re going to get that bounce that goes with it in the direction you’re going,” Locke said. “It’s almost always a good thing on those punts when a guy doesn’t catch it. It got up to the peak and I saw it tail hard, so I thought there was a chance he wouldn’t catch it.”