Vikings special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf had a long to-do list this week as ongoing errors by his unit are threatening to undo the team's three-game winning streak.
A week after having two punts blocked against the Lions, the Vikings' special teams endured a dreadful second half against the Bears that started with Cordarrelle Patterson breezing past the kickoff coverage for a 104-yard touchdown. A botched snap on an extra point attempt and a 32-yard Bears punt return followed.
On top of that to-do list? "I'd probably start with the kick," Maalouf said Thursday.
Kicker Dan Bailey, an otherwise steady veteran for a young special teams group, watched his kickoff sail directly to Patterson, one of the best kick returners in league history.
"It wasn't an ideal kick for us," said Maalouf, who got an earful from head coach Mike Zimmer on the sideline after Patterson's touchdown. "We want to get that thing way more out to the left. And I think there's a lot of hesitation from some of the young guys that we're playing.
"Probably one of the best kickoff returners in the history of the league right there. Special teams is a phase where you really just have to let loose and go, you know? That's probably the biggest emphasis that we've been making this week."
Maalouf maintains confidence in Bailey and punter Britton Colquitt, who had those two punts blocked against the Lions two weeks ago. But he stopped short of an endorsement for long snapper Austin Cutting, whose recent struggles included skipping a snap to Colquitt on an extra point attempt against Chicago.
After the game, Zimmer said: "We've had some bad snaps, yes. Sometimes [Cutting] is pretty good and sometimes he hasn't been good lately, so we'll keep working at it."
Maalouf called Cutting a "work in progress" while the Vikings personnel evaluators have hosted free-agent long snappers, including Kyle Nelson (New Mexico State) and John Wirtel (Kansas), for tryouts within the past two weeks. Cutting was forced to miss practices last week because of a mandatory quarantine as a close contact to an individual with COVID-19. Will the Vikings make a change?
"I'm not sure," Maalouf said. "That's something probably more so for the personnel people. We always evaluate guys, at least they do. And sometimes they'll ask my opinion of certain guys. Or, 'Hey, watch this guy, what do you think?' But right now, my job is to get Austin ready for Dallas."
Beyond specialists, the Vikings' already young roster has been stripped of starters because of injuries, elevating role players and special teams leaders, like linebacker Eric Wilson, into full-time roles in other units. Other injuries led to more unproven talent on special teams. Even promising rookie gunner Dan Chisena accidentally stepped on the goal line for a touchback while downing a punt in Chicago.
Chisena, a former track recruit who played 14 football games for Penn State, leads the Vikings with 157 special teams snaps despite missing a game with a hip injury.
"He does the hard part very, very well," Maalouf said. "Great starts and then stacking the defender, and then getting in position to make the finish — that's where we've really got to just work on his individual stuff.
"We're still carving out his niche and still trying to improve his play as much as we can."
The problems are widespread. The Vikings average a league-worst 1.67 yards per punt return. Averages on kickoff returns (20.9 yards), and coverage on kickoffs (24.6 yards) and punts (10.3 yards) all rank in the bottom half of the league.
Winning hasn't quite fixed everything. Maalouf said he's taking Zimmer's on-field criticism in stride.
"Having so many young guys on the field at the same time, sometimes that becomes something where it's not ideal in coverage," Maalouf said, "as far as guys getting out of their lanes or anything like that. Or if we miss a tackle as a gunner and then we have to retrace. So, I think we've changed a couple things on our teams this week and hopefully that'll help."