The Vikings will be the team to watch when it comes to analyzing the impact of the league’s new touchback rule on kickoffs.
The Vikings led the league in kickoff returns (28.3 yards) and average drive starting point (25-yard line) a year ago. But on the other hand, the Vikings ranked 26th in kickoff coverage (26.1) and 29th in opponents’ average drive starting point (22.7-yard line).
“Based on last year, we need to cover kickoffs more consistently,” Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said first when asked what his special teams needed to do better overall to reach the next level.
One thing Priefer hates as much as any miscue is an opponent’s return that goes 40 yards or longer. The Vikings gave up four of them, all in a five-game stretch last year. There were returns of 70 by Green Bay, 44 by Atlanta, 47 by Seattle and 49 by Chicago.
“I’ve had years when we didn’t allow a single 40-yard return,” Priefer said. “I’ve shown those returns this offseason, and we’ve tweaked some things, changed some drills so those plays don’t happen again.”
Covering kickoffs will be even more important this season since touchbacks now place the ball at the 25-yard line instead of the 20. Kicker Blair Walsh already owns the team record for career touchbacks (195) at age 26, but the team’s strategy on kickoffs won’t be as simple as it used to be under the old rule.
On the flip side, the Vikings have one of the most dangerous kick returners in the league. In three NFL seasons, Cordarrelle Patterson has led the league in return average twice (32.4 as an All-Pro rookie in 2013 and 31.8 last year); tied the team record for touchdowns on kickoffs in a season twice (two in 2013 and last year); and sits one touchdown shy of the team’s career record of five.
“Now, you have a little more strategy involved depending on certain times and situations in the game,” Priefer said. “I think the new rule is going to be a lot of fun.”