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Monday Morning Mailbag: Vikings Struggles on Special Teams & Remaining Margin for Error

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Our special teams are still weak and inconsistent and make boneheaded plays and/or give up big plays to the opponent. We didn't convert a successful fake because we weren't set on the end of the line? We should have learned over and over again that small things matter a whole lot when executing special teams and frankly, it is a season-long trend of poor play and poor results on special teams. We continue to have the worst punt return average in the league, and a terrible net punt average, and recurrent poor punt return coverage.

I remain very concerned about our special teams in general, and the ability of our defense to stop offenses when the game is on the line. And, our offense's continued inability to seal the deal with a drive to run out the clock with a lead of 8 or less at the 4- or 5-minute mark. Overall, a disappointing and wasted opportunity against the Cowboys. Looking forward to the Panthers.

— Jeff L.

Might as well begin with a sore spot, especially since it feels as if most of the air has been let out of the Vikings after their three-game win streak came to a halt Sunday evening.

Minnesota's special teams play has been lacking for most of the season, but the group has been thrust into the spotlight with a handful of bad games in a row.

There were the blocked punts against the Lions and the bevy of errors against the Bears. The Vikings underwent a bit of a shakeup against the Cowboys. Long snapper Austin Cutting was benched and replaced by Andrew DePaola, who was added to the practice squad and activated on Saturday. And Dan Chisena was also inactive after some recent rough outings.

View game action images as the Vikings take on the Dallas Cowboys during Week 11.

There was some good Sunday, as Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said he liked DePaola's snaps. And Dan Bailey and Britton Colquitt have shown to be the steady veterans they are in nearly every game this season.

But there was also some miscues, too, as the team can't seem to get through one game without some sort of special teams snafu.

To start, rookie K.J. Osborn fumbled the first punt return after gaining 3 yards. And even though it was recovered by Minnesota's Josh Metellus, it likely didn't inspire much confidence.

Perhaps the biggest area to fix from Sunday was the punt coverage, as the Vikings allowed Cowboys rookie CeeDee Lamb to gain 48 yards on just three returns. That's an average of 16 yards per pop.

Plus, Lamb's shortest return of the night was 10 yards (his other returns went for 20 and 18 yards). To put that in context, the Vikings now have 13 total punt return yards on seven returns for the entire season.

"We worked real hard on it this last week," Zimmer said postgame about special teams. "We're going to work real hard on it again."

As Jeff alluded to in his question, it's the small miscues that are adding up right now, especially on special teams.

And in a season where the Vikings almost have no room for error now, that phase needs to be better in a hurry.

Minnesota has six games to go in the 2020 season and might need to win out given how tough the NFC is shaping up to be. A half-dozen teams already have six wins, meaning the Vikings need to potentially run the table and hope other teams fall off in the race to nine or 10 wins, which is likely needed to make the postseason in the NFC (excluding whoever wins the NFC East).

When will our coach start using his timeouts on fourth-down plays? We have two losses with us having timeouts when the other team is in four-down territory. Makes no sense that we do not make sure we have the best defensive lineup. We did it twice against Seattle and now again against Dallas. We threw away our season now twice. Coaching is costing us games when players should be able to win.

— Viking Joe in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

Joe is referring to a fourth-and-6 converted by Dallas with a 10-yard pass from Andy Dalton to Amari Cooper.

The Cowboys went to their best receiver in a one-on-one matchup. Would a timeout have helped prevent the play? I don't know, but I do think Zimmer used his timeouts well after the play.

To refresh, Dallas got the ball back with exactly 4 minutes to go in the fourth quarter. The Vikings led 28-24 and had all three timeouts.

Zimmer called the first one after the Cowboys picked up a first down to make it first-and-goal at the 4. There was a minute and 50 seconds left.

The second one came after a 2-yard run by Ezekiel Elliott, and just before Andy Dalton's eventual game-winning score. That left Minnesota with one timeout for the final 97 seconds, which obviously ended with a Vikings turnover on downs.

I guess Zimmer could have called one on that fourth-down play, but the clock was ticking, the Cowboys were hurrying, and he wanted to let it play out. Get that stop and the game is likely over.

He also needed to use his timeouts wisely in case Dallas converted, which it did. There was a chance the Vikings would have had even less time to mount a final drive if the Cowboys had burned more time in the final two minutes.

It's all a moot point now since the Vikings lost, but I get Joe's frustration after it feels like Minnesota's season is back on the brink.

Based on how good Eric Wilson has looked this year with more playing time, and with Troy Dye seemingly able to handle his own, could the Vikings move on from Anthony Barr next year? Would be nice to get some additional draft capital.

— Lorren Zemke

I appreciate the question, but it's likely one that's better suited for the offseason. Barr is out for the season with a torn pec, and I'm not about to speculate on a guy's future when he's trying to rehab and get healthy again.

There's no doubt Wilson is having a stellar season, and he showed up again in a big way Sunday with a blocked extra point. He's shown he can handle being a starter in this league and has earned plenty of kudos considering he began his career as an undrafted free agent. Dye is working his way back into the mix after missing most of the first half of the season with an injury.

Let's see how the rest of this season finishes before we get into 2021 roster moves and the like.