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Special Teams Improves in 2015, Still Room to Develop

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. –The Vikings improved in several areas during Head Coach Mike Zimmer's second year in Minnesota, and special teams was no exception.

Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer completed his fifth year with the Vikings, a season that included two kickoffs returned for touchdowns and one punt taken back for a score for Minnesota.

Here are three special teams stats where the Vikings improved in 2015:

Punt return yards allowed

The Vikings progressed from 16th in the league to second for punt return yards allowed. Minnesota allowed its opponents to accumulate 255 punt return yards in 2014, but the coverage team cut that number nearly in half last season. The Vikings held opposing teams to just 152 total punt return yards. Only Tampa Bay was more successful in the category, limiting opponents to 140 yards.

Field goals made

Ask any player or coach, and they'll tell you that they obviously prefer touchdowns to field goals. But they'll also take field goals to no points at all.

The Vikings were one of the league's most improved teams in terms of field goal percentage, as kicker Blair Walsh nailed 34 of 39 field goals for an 87.2 conversion rate, good for 11th in the league. Minnesota's 2014 rate was 74.3 percent, which was second-to-last in the league. Walsh's 34 field goals made led all kickers in 2015.

Kickoff return average

Minnesota made a huge leap in kickoff return average, leading the league with 28.3 yards per return. In 2014, the Vikings averaged only 21.7 yards per kickoff return, placing them 26th in the NFL.

After ranking sixth with 1,173 kickoff return yards in 2014, the Vikings tallied 1,190 yards this season, good enough for third place in total yards. Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson accounted for 1,019 of those yards and recorded return touchdowns at Oakland and against Seattle. Patterson's 93-yard return against the Raiders answered a touchdown that gave Oakland the lead ever so briefly and swung momentum back to the Vikings.

"We talk to our kickoff return team all the time about being the momentum answer team," Priefer said. "The kickoff team is the momentum team. We just scored or it's the start of the half, [and] we've got to keep the momentum going."

Room for improvement

Although the Vikings had a solid year on special teams, Priefer said he's the type who always looks to improve.

"If you don't learn and try to get better, then you're going to go backwards," Priefer said.

Zimmer echoed Priefer's sentiments about having areas where special teams needs to get better. Specifically, Zimmer was most disappointed with Minnesota's kickoff coverage this season.

"[There are] quite a few things that we still have to get better at that I'm not satisfied with," Zimmer said. "We gave up some returns in the kicking game that we have to get done. It's really at the starting point of right now."

While the Vikings held their opponents to just 579 kickoff return yards in 2014, their results dropped dramatically in 2015. The Vikings dropped from third to 26th, allowing their opponents to rack up 1,043 yards on kickoff returns.

One positive note is that, despite giving up a large number of yards on returns this season, the Vikings have not allowed a kickoff return touchdown in Zimmer's tenure.

A difference of less than one yard caused the Vikings to drop from 21st (38.7) to 30th (37.8) in net punting average in 2015.

After the past two seasons with home game outdoors, it will be interesting to see how the Vikings move into U.S. Bank Stadium might impact special teams statistics.

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