MANKATO, Minn. —Instincts and natural playmaking ability have made Cordarrelle Patterson one of the NFL's most dangerous kickoff returners. Patterson makes it look almost effortless when he fields a kick in the end zone, glides toward the oncoming coverage team and then identifies an open lane before dashing down the field.
Blair Walsh makes one of his tasks – kicking off – look just as effortless as he often times smashes the ball off the tee and through the end zone for a touchback.
Patterson's flashy returns and Walsh's booming kickoffs happen quickly and naturally, but that doesn't mean they happen without intentionality. One of the rule changes in 2016 is that touchbacks will bring the starting field position to the 25-yard line as opposed to the 20-yard line. While in the grand scheme of things a five-yard change may seem subtle, it actually has caused teams across the league to reconsider their strategy in terms of returns and kickoffs.
Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer touched on the topic during his press conference on Monday.
"Beginning of the game, (kickoff is) 8 yards deep, really good hang time, we don't want to start out at the 12," Priefer explained, insinuating Patterson would kneel on the ball in that scenario to take advantage of the touchback rule. "But if we're down by 10 with minutes to go in the game, we might say 'Let's go' because he (Cordarrelle Patterson) has the ability to score a 109-yard touchdown. Pick and choose our spots and be smart about it field position-wise. Whatever helps our football team, we're going to go from there."
On the flip side, Priefer's special teams group also has to deal with talented kickoff returners.
"If it's a great returner, we're going against Ameer Abdullah, an outstanding returner for Detroit, and it's early in the game, you might want to put it back in the end zone," Priefer suggested. "But if it's a situation where we've got to get the ball back and we want to pin them deep, we use our timeouts, they kicked it, they get bad field position, we would get a good return. Go down, kick it again, with a field goal, we might put it higher and shorter."
The "higher and shorter" strategy would result in a kickoff that doesn't go through the end zone for a touchback but rather is kicked with more loft and less distance so as to allow the coverage team time to run down and tackle the returner before he's able to advance the ball very far.
Suffice it to say, the new kickoff rule will make strategizing even more interesting when it comes to kickoffs in 2016.
"There's going to be a lot of different strategy that's involved," Priefer said. "It's going to be fun."
Intensity amps up
By Craig Peters
Monday marked the second day of padded practices for the 2016 Vikings, and Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer upped the ante with goal-line drills.
If the good people of St. Peter were wondering about a thump sound they heard in the afternoon, that was linebacker Emmanuel Lamur and running back Matt Asiata meeting a step after Asiata carried the ball into the end zone from the two. Lamur hit hard, and Asiata, who has been strong in short-yardage situations, took the contact and held onto the ball.
It was the first hardcore pop of camp. The second between the two happened on a similar play two plays later that was quickly followed by a brief entanglement by the offense and defense. Another skirmish occurred later on the sidelines.
Zimmer said the intensity "started a little slow, but it got better."
"Sometimes it's good. You come out here, and everybody is happy all of the time," Zimmer said with disdain dripping from the old-school coach's voice. "This is a physical game, and we've got to be physical. They won't do it in a game because I'll fix it by then, but it's not bad.
Hunter lends a hand
By Eric Smith
The Vikings had plenty of athleticism on the field Monday afternoon when they practiced kickoff returns, especially when two of their youngest players were in action.
Defensive end Danielle Hunter and wide receiver Moritz Böhringer teamed up to help block for a variety of returners, briefly joining hands before splitting up to take on individual blocks.
The 22-year-old Böhringer, a sixth-round pick who was first player drafted directly out of Europe without first playing college football, then received help with his blocking technique from Hunter on the sideline.
Hunter's advice seemed to pay off right away as Böhringer received a pat on the helmet from Vikings Priefer after the next drill.
Hunter, 21, was the youngest player in the NFL last season and finished second among all rookies with 6.0 sacks, in addition to contributing on special teams.