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Vikings Special Teams Looking to Make a Repeat Splash Against Panthers

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. –The last time the Vikings and Panthers faced each other was memorable, and not just because it was only 12 degrees at kickoff in Minneapolis.

Minnesota's special teams unit made the highlight reel when it returned not one, but two blocked punts for touchdowns.

Just over halfway through the first quarter, Adam Thielen blocked the Panthers punt and ran it 30 yards to the end zone for his first career touchdown.

"We had practiced it all week and thought it was going to come open somewhere else, but it's one of those things where you have to be ready no matter what," Thielen recalled. "It got open, and we got a block."

Thielen's play was the longest in franchise history … for about 15 minutes of game time. Early in the second quarter, linebacker Jasper Brinkley blocked a second Panthers punt. The pigskin was recovered by Everson Griffen, who rumbled 43 yards for another Minnesota score.

"It was awesome," Thielen said. "It was nice to have two in a row. Very few times do you even get one block, and to get two is pretty awesome."

Now almost two years later, the Vikings will travel to Carolina to take on the defending NFC Champs, who are 23-4 (including playoffs) since their visit to Minnesota. The forecast is predicting a day 69 degrees warmer than their last matchup, but Minnesota hopes to freeze the team's 14-game win streak at home.

Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer said it would be nice if his players could make a splashy play – or two – again.

"I wouldn't mind [blocking another punt]," Priefer said. "Obviously, those were two huge plays in that football game. I'm sure they'll be ready for it, they're well coached, they have a good team. They have a new punter [Andy Lee], a new Special Teams Coordinator [Thomas McGaughey], but they have some of the same guys.

"They're very, very talented," Priefer continued. "[Panthers General Manager] Dave Gettleman has done a great job with that roster, they coach them up well, and we've got our work cut out for us."

While Lee may be new to Carolina's roster, he has garnered quite the reputation across the league. Over a 12-year career – he played his first 11 seasons in San Francisco before playing in Cleveland in 2015 – Lee averaged 46.5 gross yards per punt. This season, he's averaged 53.6 yards per punt with a net average of 44.1. As a rookie, he recorded an 81-yard punt at Tampa Bay; in 2008, recorded an 82-yard punt. And In the first game of the 2016 season, Lee nailed a 76-yard punt at Denver.

"Andy is a veteran punter that has a phenomenal leg," Priefer said. "He gets the ball off quick, he poses a lot of problems for us."

He added: "Their gunners are good; they pose some problems for us as well. They're a good football team."

Vikings punter Jeff Locke, who holds a net punting average of 37.0, had one of the best games of his career against the Packers in Week 2. Locke placed Green Bay inside the 20-yard line five times. Priefer said he **hopes to see that consistency carry forward** through the season.

Minnesota is headed south in search of another big day on special teams, whether through a blocked punt or a big punt return by Marcus Sherels or kickoff return by Cordarrelle Patterson, who leads the NFL with an average of 41.0 yards per return.

"I know whatever Coach Prief' has, I know he plans well each and every week," Patterson said. "We've been working hard this week, so we just have to continue to do things right and prepare for Sunday.

Thielen, who's also held a larger role on offense this season, said he and his teammates will be ready to make plays whenever they come their way.

"You never know what's going to happen, and you never know what's going to come open," Thielen said. "You just have to be prepared no matter what."

More Special Teams Tidbits

• Panthers kicker Graham Gano is tied for second in the league with six made field goals this season, while Vikings kicker Blair Walsh has five made field goals.

• Gano scored 24 points for Carolina over the first two games of the season; Walsh has 18 points on the board for Minnesota.

• Lee's net punting average of 44.1 ranks fourth in the league.

• The Panthers utilize Ted Ginn as a returner on both punts and kickoffs.

• The Vikings have punted 10 times in the first two games, and the Panthers have punted seven times.

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