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Strength vs. Strength: The Return Game

Posted Nov 15, 2013

In football there are many games within the game. An offensive line versus a defensive line, as an example. A shutdown cornerback against a dynamic receiver is another. This Sunday in Seattle, there’s a game within the Vikings-Seahawks game that could have a profound impact on the outcome of the entire game. Even if it doesn’t, it will still be a fun game within the game to watch.

That matchup is the Vikings return game against the Seahawks coverage teams.

The Vikings come into Sunday’s game at Seattle boasting the NFL’s leading kickoff returner – Cordarrelle Patterson (35.2) – and the NFL’s leading punt returner – Marcus Sherels (16.3). The Seahawks have a nice counter, though, because they lead the NFL in opponent drive starts inside the 20 after a kickoff (14) and they are also the NFL’s #1 punt coverage group, surrendering just 1.4 yards per return (15 total yards on 11 returns).

So it’s the clichéd “strength vs. strength” between the Vikings and Seahawks.

Last week, the Washington Redskins wanted nothing to do with Patterson and the Vikings kickoff return group. The first three Washington kickoffs were a series of pooch and squib kicks designed to take Patterson out of the play entirely. While the design worked from that standpoint, the Vikings anticipated this strategy by adjusting their personnel. Toby Gerhart, AJ Jefferson and Joe Webb were placed in the back end of the formation, and together they gained 61 yards on four returns. More importantly, they handled the ball well and maintained possession, giving the offense favorable field position.

This week will be a different story, though, at least that’s what Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer said on Thursday.

“I think Seattle’s going to kickoff to us,” Priefer said matter-of-factly. “Why wouldn’t they? They have the best kickoff team in the NFL. They’re outstanding. They have a great kicker, they’ve got great players covering, they’re well-coached. I think they’re going to kick it to us. That’s my gut feeling.”

Seattle’s kickoffs reach the end zone 93.3% of the time, a mark that is tied for sixth in the NFL. But those kickoffs result in touchbacks just 56.7% of the time, which is 15th in the NFL. While touchbacks may not be Seattle’s forte, pinning teams inside their own 20 is, and that’s why Priefer has such high regard for the way Seattle’s kick coverage team performs. Conversely, the Vikings are expert at advancing the ball past the 20 on kickoffs, doing so 28 times in 35 returns (80%) while also leading the NFL in average drive start after a kickoff (26.2 yard line).

Priefer has similar regard for the Seahawks punt coverage team, which is producing numbers that look like misprints at first glance. Just 15 total punt return yards allowed on the season? Yes, it’s true. No other coverage team is even close – the New Orleans Saints are second with 71 punt return yards allowed.

“Jon’s been a guy in the past that’s out-kicked his coverage at times, and they’ve limited him in doing that this year,” Priefer said of punter Jon Ryan and his coverage team. “He’s putting them a little bit shorter – not much shorter – a little bit shorter and much higher. They’ve got outstanding gunners, they do a great job interior-wise they fly down the field, they get off blocks, and again, they’re well-coached. They’re doing everything right.”

So is Sherels, who was key in last week’s second half comeback because he advanced a pair of punts 14+ yards to setup good field position and who is also an expert in ball security. In addition, Sherels has shown some burst, returning a punt last year for a touchdown and adding another score this season.

So yes, it’ll be fun to see Percy Harvin make his debut in Seattle and it’ll be fun to watch Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch, two of the NFL’s best runners, share the field. But don’t turn away when it’s time for a special teams play.

It is, after all, a strength versus strength matchup.