The Vikings got good work on special teams at the U.S. Bank Stadium practice, a trend that should continue this week with joint practices with the Broncos and the preseason opener Saturday.
Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Ryan Ficken chatted with Twin Cities media members Tuesday and outlined what he wants to see from his group in the coming days.
"The biggest thing we want to achieve is making sure we're playing fast and with a sense of urgency," Ficken said. "We're assignment-sound, playing great with our technique and fundamentals and making sure we're playing penalty-free football and helping our team flip the field and win the game.
"That's the biggest objectives we're looking at, and being able to evaluate all these guys so we can make decisions here in a few weeks," Ficken added.
The Vikings roster is currently at 90 players, but it must be trimmed to 85 on Aug. 17 and then cut down to 80 players on Aug. 24.
Time is of the essence as players battle for roster spots, a competition that could be affected by ability to play special teams. Ficken noted that many young Vikings players didn't have to worry about that phase in college.
"I think at this level, though, a lot of these receivers don't play special teams in college. So right now, they've got to [try] to be the best football player. And it's finding how they can create value," Ficken said. "That's the most important thing. I don't see them as wide receivers, running backs, linebackers. I just see how can they help our football team win football games?
"And what can we do to put them in a position to be successful," Ficken added. "In terms of receivers – I mean, they've got to be able to play all positions – if it's a returner, if they've got that value; to hold-ups, blocking, I mean, they've got to be able to become a full football player as we see it."
Ficken also detailed some of the special teams battles that are ongoing, including the one at long snapper between Andrew DePaola and Turner Bernard.
"First, you have to make sure you can snap the ball. That's the first and most important job … snapping the ball with great velocity and accuracy," Ficken said. "Then we have to make sure they can go ahead and protect. Understand the protection and how the scheme of punt rushes are affecting us. But you've got to snap the ball, that's first and foremost."
Greg Joseph and Riley Patterson are also battling for the kicking job. Joseph has done well in camp, while Patterson missed more than a week on the Active/Physically Unable to Perform List.
Both kickers made each of their two field goal attempts Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium.
"He's making strides, so it's encouraging for him to be here," Ficken said of Patterson, an undrafted rookie out of Memphis. "Glad he's able to get back – you saw him kick at U.S. Bank Stadium [on Saturday], and he made his kicks.
"Now we just have to continue to build on that. Just keep putting good days together, back-to-back," Ficken added. "But it will be a good challenge here coming up, and a nice competition, as we go ahead and move forward in camp."
As for the returners, Ficken said they are sorting through a variety of options. He added that while performance in preseason games while factor into starting roles, the Vikings are also evaluating players each day as roster cutdown dates lurk.
"I think you put a lot of weight, not just on preseason games, but every situation," Ficken said. "It's the meetings, walk-throughs, in practice every day. There's a lot of emphasis that goes into it as far as evaluating guys as a returner.
"We need to see how they are situationally. … Everything goes into it, as opposed to just the game," Ficken added. "But it also depends on how many returns you get in a given game and how we can balance that in the rotation. But a lot of value on it."
Quote of the Day
"Yeah we're making progress. They did step up. The train's leaving, but I think we'll find out a lot in these preseason games how they play when the lights are on. How they tackle live, bringing guys to the ground. I think a couple of them took some good steps this last week and some others they've got to pick their game up."
- Co-Defensive Coordinator and linebackers coach Adam Zimmer
2 More Points
Here are two other takeaways from Tuesday's media session:
1. Polamalu in awe of Hall of Fame shoutout
Vikings running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu had the experience of a lifetime Saturday night when his nephew, Troy, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Troy Polamalu played 12 seasons for the Steelers, making eight Pro Bowls and earning four All-Pro honors. He was also the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame's 2000s All-Decade Team.
But Kennedy had no idea what was in store for him during his nephew's induction speech, as he was singled out for having such a big impact on Troy's life.
"He instilled in me an authentic respect and passion for the game," Troy said. "His intensity has inspired not just me, but countless athletes to revere and love the game at all costs.
"Uncle, you're a true coach, not just in sports, but in life," Troy added.
An emotional Kennedy, who said he didn't know the shoutout was coming, revealed his reaction to the speech on Tuesday.
"He's just, he's been that way his whole life," Kennedy said. "Very passionate, very determined, he was a very coachable kid when I had him at a young age. We talk ball all the time. It was a nice mention.
"Man, I couldn't stop crying. When he got on stage, I couldn't stop crying, he didn't have to say anything about me, it was just the moment," Kennedy added. "Not only for him, but for my family, my culture. Just wish that my mom and dad, my older brother Salu — who he lived with in Oregon — were around to see it."
Kennedy later expanded on how important the milestone moment was for the American Samoa community.
"You know, it's a very poor country. It's very family-oriented, the village pretty much," Kennedy said. "It's a Matai system. My dad was the Matai and basically, you took care of the whole village. And that culture has continued all the way through our lives.
"The humility and the service, that's part of the culture. You take care of your family, you stay humble and you put your head down and go to work," Kennedy added. "You don't have to talk about it, you don't have to brag about it, you just do your job."
2. Praise for Nwangwu
Polamalu also had praise for rookie running back Kene Nwangwu, who was a fourth-round pick out of Iowa State.
Nwangwu was singled out for his effort in practice, particularly in coverage on special teams.
"Very bright young man. Explosive. Very cautious of wanting to do things right. I've just got to unleash him," Kenney said. "Be creative, there's going to be sometimes you make a mistake but make it 100 miles an hour and you'll be fine.
"I'm looking forward to it because he's not only doing that, Coach Zim' showed a nice special teams [play on film] where he covered kickoff and was one of the first guys down the field and had a really good collision," he added. "That's what we're about in our room, making plays with or without the football. Be the guy that can just impact. Don't just be out here wearing a uniform."
View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of Oct. 23, 2021.
Kenney noted that it is a benefit for Nwangwu to go up against Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer's complex defense each day, and again harped on the fact the youngster needs to think less and just react.
"With those different looks and different fits and pressures, you tend to not just cut it loose," Polamalu said. "We've got to get him to cut it loose, so I showed him some tape of Dalvin [Cook] when he was a rookie."
"We put him in pressure situations and Dalvin said that to them," Polamalu added. "We're going to put you in pressure situations and the most pressure you're going to feel is me on your behind, so don't worry about that, just go have fun."
Nwangwu is in the mix for the Vikings kick returner spot, too. He had one kickoff return for a score in his college career, averaging 26.8 yards per return on 92 total attempts. His 2,470 career kickoff yards is the most in school history and third all-time in Big 12 history.
The Vikings will host the Broncos for joint practices Wednesday and Thursday in full pads at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center. The teams will then meet in the preseason opener Saturday at 3 p.m. at U.S. Bank Stadium. Tickets for joint practices can be found here, while game tickets are here.