EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. —Special teams plays have proved pivotal in recent games between the Vikings and the Panthers.
In 2014, Adam Thielen blocked Brad Nortman's punt, scooped the ball and sprinted 30 yards for a touchdown, setting a team record for longest scoring return of a blocked punt.
The record stood for less than a quarter of game time because Everson Griffen returned a punt that was blocked by former Viking Jasper Brinkley 43 yards for a touchdown. Griffen's score put the Vikings up 21-3 in an eventual 31-13 victory.
When the teams met in Week 3 last season, the Vikings didn't block any of Andy Lee's four punts, but they still found the end zone. Marcus Sherels slipped through and raced 54 yards for a score after a 48-yard punt.
Michael Palardy is now handling punting duties, and Thomas McGaughey is in his second season as Panthers special teams coordinator.
Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer was asked Thursday about what's helped the Vikings against the Panthers.
"Our guys have showed up, and they've prepared well," Priefer said. "Carolina is always a challenge because they have really, really good players, they're well coached and our guys have responded. They always tell me that great players make great plays, and it's not always about the schemes, but it is about technique, it is about playing fast. We've had success because our guys have played well and taken advantage of the opportunities we were given."
The special teams unit also pinned the Panthers deep in their own territory last season, enabling Danielle Hunter to sack Cam Newton in the end zone for a safety.
Priefer said the Vikings have developed a belief that when they are able to back up a team deep in its own territory, points will follow.
Last week, the Vikings flipped field position on the Falcons to set up Minnesota's first touchdown.
"Last week we had a situation where the kid had a high-hang time punt, but we still got the ball at mid-field and we went down and scored," Priefer said. That was after [Ryan Quigley's] punt to the 2-yard line. Our defense forced a three-and-out. We gave our offense the ball at mid-field, we went down and scored and that was one of our touchdowns, and to me, that's complimentary football at its finest."
Here are two topics that Defensive Coordinator George Edwards and Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur discussed during their weekly sessions:
Edwards on trying to pressure Newton
In addition to Hunter's safety, the Vikings have sacked Newton 11 other times in two games under Head Coach Mike Zimmer.
Edwards said there will be new matchups this season and noted that center Ryan Kalil is practicing this week. Even though he was limited, the Vikings are preparing to face Kalil and his younger brother, former Vikings left tackle Matt, on Sunday.
"We're going to get a full dose of them this week," Edwards said. "Protection-wise, they've been good. [Newton] hasn't been sacked that many times this year. I know last week they got after him and blitzed him quite a bit. We'll have to see how the matchups come Sunday, what they're doing protection-wise and those types of deals."
Edwards on watching offense close out the game
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has been quite successful at staging fourth-quarter comebacks over the years, but all he could do was watch last week as Minnesota's offense kept the ball for the final 4:58 to preserve a 14-9 victory.
According to pro-football-reference.com, Ryan has recorded 26 comebacks and executed 35 game-winning drives.
"I had my pom-poms out," Edwards quipped when asked what it was like to see the offense run out the clock. "Any time that happens, we're excited. But no, they did an excellent job of ball control. You look at that last five minutes of just grinding it out, picking up critical first downs. Our offense has really done a nice job of that throughout the year."
Shurmur on the possibility of facing more pressure
The Falcons were able to record two sacks of Case Keenum last week without bringing a ton of blitzes.
The Panthers also use a 4-3 base but choose to blitz more often than the Falcons, Shurmur said.
"They're similar concepts in terms of how they pressure," Shurmur said. "It's just they do it quite a bit. Actually probably two or three times more than say, Atlanta, did in the breakdown. We have to be ready for it. Our guys up front have to be good at getting on the right guys. Our running backs have to be good. Case has to be really sharp about getting rid of the ball if we have a free rusher."
Shurmur on Keenum's demeanor
Keenum and the Vikings have been on quite a run. The team has won eight games in a row (seven starts by Keenum, who also played a significant role in a win at Chicago). The NFC Offensive Player of the Month for November has had quite a bit to be excited about.
Zimmer cited Keenum's excitement level creeping too high after throwing his fourth touchdown against Washington, which resulted in a pair of interceptions. In three starts since, however, Keenum has completed 73 of 98 passes for 789 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions for a passer rating of 114.7.
Shurmur said he tries to "caddy" for Keenum.
"It's constant communication. We put together a plan that we think is going to work, with the idea that he can go out and execute it," Shurmur said. "Through the game, you just caddy for him and help keep him in the moment. Case is good at that. But he gets amped up like all good players, and it's just a matter of [continuing to communicate] with him. He doesn't need much of that. He's done a really good job and is to be commended. He's had an outstanding year, and we're hopeful he can just stay on this same path."