EAGAN, Minn. – When it comes to kickoff return, coaches must balance risk versus reward.
In weighing whether or not to return a kickoff or settle for a touchback, perhaps it’s an equation considered even more carefully since the touchback was moved from the 20 to the 25-yard line prior to the 2016 season.
“There’s probably a lot more touchbacks [since the rule change],” said Vikings returner Marcus Sherels. “Teams are taking the ball at the 25 rather than taking more chances like we used to.”
Sherels joined the Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2010 and has been Minnesota’s primary punt returner since 2011 but often has been called up on return kicks, as well, in the case of injuries.
When the rule change first was implemented two-plus years ago, a slight uptick in touchbacks was seen. As a comparison, through the first eight games of the 2015 season – when the touchback remained at the 20 – the Vikings had 20 returns and 14 touchbacks. The following year, Minnesota logged 16 returns and 14 touchbacks through the first eight games.
Last season, the Vikings returned kickoffs 15 times through the first eight games and had 19 touchbacks.
Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer maintained more a more aggressive mentality when the spot first moved and has since trended more moderately. When speaking to Twin Cities media members earlier this week, Priefer pointed out that a number of factors can influence the decision to return a kickoff or take the touchback.
Personnel, opponents’ personnel and a team’s offense all can play a role in the decision.
Sherels said that “where they kick it, how far they kick it, what side of the field they kick it to and what kind of return we have called” can all impact any given kickoff.
“I think it depends on the returner,” Priefer said. “Other teams that have these big-time returners are still taking it out of the end zone, and there is a risk/reward. You might get one to the 40, 45, but you’re going to get four or five [where you’re tackled] inside the 20.”
At the season’s midpoint, the Vikings so far this year have recorded the largest difference of the past four seasons between returns and touchbacks, with 11 and 34, respectively.
The highest number of kickoff returns occurred in the Vikings-Bills game. In the Week 3 loss, Minnesota returned four kickoffs from the end zone and reached the 22, 17, 17 and 22-yard line.
Since then, the Vikings have returned just five kickoffs and taken 21 touchbacks.
“Our mentality here is that we’re going to be, I guess, more on the conservative side. Let’s take the field position,” Priefer said. “We’ve got a really good offense, we’ve got a great quarterback – let’s put the ball on the 25 and let’s go. Whereas, in years past when we weren’t as strong on offense, we’d try to make a big play with our return game.
“So I think it depends on the team you have, it depends on the returner you have, it depends on who you’re playing, who the opponent is – how well they cover, how great the kicker is. If he line-drives one five deep, or if he puts one with a 4.3 hangtime five deep – that all comes into play,” Priefer said.
The Vikings have used a number of players back to return kickoffs, and the rotation has continued. With Mike Hughes on Injured Reserve, Holton Hill playing more defense and Roc Thomas being ruled out for Sunday’s contest against Detroit, it will be interesting to see who takes the bulk of the returning responsibility.
“As soon as [Thomas] went down, we put Marcus back there. Marcus is always a great option because he’ll know what to do. He’s always prepared,” Priefer said. “Holton Hill can always be an option depending on [Xavier Rhodes’ status]. We could put Mike Boone back there. He’s been catching kicks, as well. We have a bunch of guys, Brandon Zylstra, we are having a bunch of guys be prepared.”
Added Sherels: “We’ve got a lot of skilled guys who can do it, so we’re ready to go.”
Thielen named PFF’s NFC Offensive Player of the Month
Adam Thielen has received a bit of recognition in reaction to his incredible first-half performance.
Thielen, who leads the NFL with 74 catches for 925 yards, was recently named NFC Offensive Player of the Month by analytics site Pro Football Focus.
Thielen had 34 receptions on 40 targets for 452 yards and four touchdowns in October as the Vikings went 3-1 in the month.
The Minnesota native can set an NFL record Sunday if he records 100-plus receiving yards. Thielen’s current streak of 100-yard games is at eight, which is tied with former Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson for the longest stretch in NFL history.
Thielen also has a five-game touchdown streak.
Vikings unsure of Detroit’s 3rd-down plans without Tate
The Vikings defense has been stellar on third downs so far in 2018, holding opponents to just 22 conversions on 86 attempts, which is good for a 25.6 success rate.
Minnesota ranks first in the NFL in that category, but the Vikings could have their hands full Sunday against the Lions.
Not because of who the Lions will have on the field, however, but more so because Detroit recently traded away Golden Tate.
The wide receiver was one of quarterback Matthew Stafford’s favorite options through the air; Tate was targeted on 69 of Detroit’s 259 pass attempts [26.6 percent] so far in 2018.
Tate also had a heavy third-down presence, ranking fifth in the league with 15 catches for 198 yards on third downs. Detroit has converted 36 of 85 third downs (42.4 percent), which ranks 12th in the NFL.
That leaves Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer wondering who the Lions will turn to on third downs now.
“It makes it tougher, honestly,” Zimmer said. “Tate was a great player and excellent on third downs, but now we have to kind of figure out what they’re going to do differently, who’s going to be in there, are they going to use [running back Theo] Riddick, which is probably a pretty good option.