The morning after each Vikings game, beat writer Ben Goessling dives in for a deeper look at a key aspect of how the Vikings played, and what it means for the team going forward:
In Week 9 last year, the Vikings saw Blair Walsh miss an extra point and get a field goal blocked in an overtime loss to the Lions, which could have been decided in regulation had either kick gone in.
That they weren’t done in by special teams issues on Thursday in Detroit might be a testament, in some ways, to how much more resilient and resourceful this year’s Vikings team has been than the 2016 club. But in some ways, Minnesota’s special teams problems on Thanksgiving were more concerning than what happened last year.
The Vikings had an extra point blocked after their first touchdown when the Lions crashed the middle of the team’s field goal block unit (possibly committing a penalty by charging long snapper Kevin McDermott in the process). An errant snap from McDermott had holder Ryan Quigley reaching to get the ball in place, forcing Kai Forbath to alter his approach on a 53-yard field goal that was ultimately blocked.
Return man Marcus Sherels had a 38-yard kick return wiped out in the second quarter by holding penalties on Stephen Weatherly and Blake Bell. And while Darius Slay’s early jump ultimately rendered his blocked field goal moot, the ensuing return touchdown wouldn’t have tied the game, even if it had held up, had the Vikings taken care of two earlier kicks.
Coach Mike Zimmer opted for a Quigley punt from the Lions’ 37-yard line in the fourth quarter, rather than trying Forbath from 55 yards. And while it’s possible the Vikings might have decided to punt while protecting a four-point lead in that situation even if they’d had a good day kicking field goals, the earlier misses couldn’t have helped the situation.
“I think we can do some better things on special teams than what we did today,” Zimmer said, “but Detroit’s a really good football team.”
The Vikings have fielded some of the league’s best special teams units in recent years, so they had a high standard to meet this season, even after bidding farewell to All-Pro kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson and breaking in a new punter. And while the group hadn’t been bad this season, it also hadn’t provided the kind of distinct advantage the Vikings have enjoyed in recent years.
According to Football Outsiders, the Vikings’ special teams units entered Week 12 ranked as the 15th-best in the league this season, after placing 10th, 4th, 10th, 6th and 5th the past five years. The Vikings’ kick return unit, which hasn’t produced a return longer than 39 yards this season after getting five return TDs from Patterson the past four years, is tied for 23rd in the league in expected points added, and the kickoff unit ranks 30th.
The kick units have hurt the Vikings’ production as the punt unit has improved to 8th in the league and the punt return group ranks 4th in the NFL. Overall, though, the Vikings haven’t received the kind of dynamic boost from special teams they’d come to enjoy. They entered Thursday’s game with the 16th-best starting field position in the league this season, after ranking second a year ago and third in 2015.
With return men like Percy Harvin and Patterson, the Vikings probably have been spoiled somewhat on special teams, and Forbath made his final kick of the day. He said after the game he’d hit all of his kicks well, and wasn’t going home worried about how he was striking the ball. He’s now missed five extra points and four field goals in 11 games this season — a year after the Vikings released Walsh for missing four extra points and four field goals in nine games.
“The operation — I mean, I haven’t seen it, but it wasn’t smooth,” Forbath said about the blocked field goal. “I stopped, and from that distance, when you stop and almost have to try and one-step a kick, it’s tough to get there from that long. They were bringing pressure all day, and they blocked the extra point. We came out with the win, fortunately, but we’ve got to have a more routine operation like we have all year.”
The Vikings have set a high standard for themselves on special teams, and they’re trying to meet it with a number of new pieces this season. A year after kicking-game gaffes cost them a win against the Lions, they headed home on Thursday night fortunate their errors at Ford Field didn’t come back to burn them.