EAGAN, Minn. — There were plenty of times last season when a big day from the Vikings offense or stout performance from the defense helped deliver a win.
But there were also moments when a clutch field goal or special teams play helped swing the tide in Minnesota’s favor as well.
That’s just how Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Mike Preifer prefers it.
“We joke around with the offensive and defensive coaches that offense scores points, defense wins games and special teams win championships,” Priefer said. “When it’s our turn to go on the stage and perform, we talk very seriously about what complementary football means to our football team.
“I know Coach Zimmer talked about complementary football a lot and how all three phases complement each other,” Priefer added. “When we’re all clicking on all cylinders, I think we have a great chance to win games.”
The 2017 season saw another strong special teams performance for the Vikings under Priefer, who is entering his eighth season in Minnesota.
The Vikings did not give up a kick return for a score but did allow a punt return for a touchdown when the Bears pulled out a trick play in Week 17 after the Vikings had already wrapped up the NFC North title.
Punter Ryan Quigley did not record a touchback in the regular season and averaged 42.2 yards per punt.
Minnesota did not score a special teams touchdown for the first time since the 2014 season, but Priefer like what he saw in the return game.
Marcus Sherels finished seventh in the league with 9.5 yards per punt return. He pushed his career punt return yards to a franchise-record 2,171.
And a host of young players became key pieces on special teams.
“I thought we had a lot of young guys step up, like they normally do and like we normally have to have happen for us,” Priefer said. “Ben Gedeon, Eric Wilson, Jayron Kearse did a good job for us. Anthony Harris continued to play well for us. Marcus Sherels, he’s not a young guy, he’s a veteran guy. I think we have a great locker room, a great group of guys that worked hard last year.
“I thought we covered punts and kickers very, very well for the most part. We had a couple glitches in there we need to correct this year. We didn’t have any touchdowns in the return game, but we were very consistent,” Priefer said. “I think Marcus finished seventh in the league in punt return average, and I believe he broke a Vikings record for the amount of punt return yards. To me, that was a deal for us in getting those yards for our offense. And kickoff returns, I thought we did some good things, too. Overall, you know me, so we’re always looking to improve. But we’ll take the stuff we did poorly, and that will be the first thing I talk about this spring.”
Priefer will have an infusion of more young talent to work with as the 2018 season grows near.
The Vikings took Mike Hughes with the 30th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, and the cornerback is expected to be a solid special teams contributor. Minnesota also selected kicker Daniel Carlson in the fifth round. Carlson will compete with veteran kicker Kai Forbath. Other rookies could also chip in on special teams.
“I think, right off the bat, Mike Hughes can help us in the return game. I think he’d be a very good gunner, very good on kickoff coverage as well,” Priefer said. “I know he’ll be playing a lot of defense, so we have to make sure we don’t overplay and overload him too much, especially early on. But he’s a very talented young man that I had rated as the No. 1 returner coming out this year.
“Obviously our kicker, Daniel Carlson … I was a little pleasantly surprised that we moved up to get him. I was called down to the draft room in the fifth round, and I think when Rick wants a guy, he’s going to go get him. He felt like that was the right guy to get at that spot so I’m very, very pleased that we drafted Daniel. He’ll provide great competition for us at the placekicker position,” Priefer added. “And then there are other guys I’d watched on tape. Tyler Conklin, I’ve seen him on tape. Tray Matthews, a guy from Auburn who’s [an undrafted] free agent. Overall, I thought it was a great draft, and I look forward to working with these guys in the spring.”
For Priefer, the challenge starts now of being able to help the Vikings win games in the fall.
“I’ve got the greatest job in the world, whether it’s [working with] Linval Joseph on field-goal block or Riley Reiff on field-goal protection and everybody in between,” Priefer said. “It’s a great honor to be our special teams coordinator here. We just have to continue to improve this year.”