Vikings special teams need to bounce back

Published 12:07 pm Saturday, January 2, 2010

After a series of bad special teams plays last season, the Minnesota Vikings have improved in that area.

They’re sending one of their cover men, Heath Farwell, to the Pro Bowl. Kicker Ryan Longwell has been exceptionally accurate.

Last week, though, was not special.

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The Vikings allowed three long kickoff returns to Chicago’s Danieal Manning, for an average of nearly 45 yards. Longwell had an extra point blocked after a low snap and a sloppy hold, and he also played a part in the poor kickoff coverage with less-than-ideal hang time. Punter Chris Kluwe wasn’t great in the cold weather, including a 16-yarder off the side of his foot. Rookie kickoff returner Percy Harvin was unable to get going.

“I think the whole body of work has improved,” coach Brad Childress said, assessing the season. “You always have a tendency to look at what went wrong. There’s a lot of things that went right. We can correct what happened last weekend, with the ball coming down short. Hopefully we can kick it a little bit longer in the Dome.”

The Vikings (11-4) host the New York Giants on Sunday, hoping to gain some momentum for the playoffs.

Long kickoff returns are the biggest concern, and they can be attributed to a number of issues. The Bears have had their share of success in recent years, and in the last meeting at Minnesota they had runbacks of 44 and 77 yards. Missed tackles and even the slightest of veers in running lanes can create holes big enough to spring a significant return.

Childress and special teams coordinator Brian Murphy sounded most concerned about Longwell’s lack of hang time on his second-half kickoffs during that freezing Chicago night.

“It was not a fundamentally good game in that phase of the game, and you throw on top of it some kicks that came up short,” Murphy said. “It was a bad day all around in that phase.”

The weather was a part of it, but not all.

“They were short. The ball comes downhill fast. It puts a lot of pressure on the coverage,” Murphy said, adding: “There is no excuse for the ball to get that far, either. There are 10 guys working to get off blocks and to leverage the football and get it down. It’s not thrown at one person’s feet. It was a breakdown with the unit.”

Murphy was confident his group will bounce back.

“We went back, looked at film and made some corrections,” said rookie safety Jamarca Sanford, who has made several hard hits and sure tackles this season on special teams. “This week, we’re going to try to get back to doing what we normally do.”

Added Murphy: “Whenever we’ve come up short, which hasn’t been often, when we’ve come up short those guys come back determined to make things right and they have responded well every opportunity they have had. I wouldn’t think that this would be any different.”

Longwell is second in the NFL behind Arizona’s Neil Rackers with a 92 percent rate on his field goals, 23 for 25. Harvin has two touchdowns and a handful of other long returns, and Darius Reynaud has been a reliable punt returner. Then there’s Farwell, who recovered from major knee surgery and has helped the coverage units respond from last year’s disaster — an NFL-record seven touchdowns allowed in special teams situations.

The Vikings rank only 22nd in opponent’s average staring yard line after kickoffs (27.4), but Harvin has helped them reach second place in their own average (31.2) behind the Bears (31.6).

“We have to get back to what we were doing, and we’ll cover kicks like we used to,” Farwell said. “We’ll start this week and continue the momentum into the playoffs.”