EAGAN, Minn. — The first nine games of the 2018 Vikings season showed stark contrasts between September and October-into-November.
The Vikings have reached their bye week at 5-3-1 and 1-0-1 in the NFC North, which is behind the 7-2 mark that Minnesota posted in 2017 thanks to a five-game win streak.
Minnesota has rebounded from a 1-2-1 opening quarter to win four of the past five games by improving in several key areas.
Vikings.com's Eric Smith did a deep comparison of the Vikings stats, noticing several differences between the first four games and the past five. The gap included a mini-bye after visiting the Los Angeles Rams for Thursday Night Football in Week 4 that allowed for some self-scouting opportunities before Minnesota won at Philadelphia in Week 5.
This piece will take a look at three areas of special teams and delve into aspects that have improved and others that will continue to be a focus in the second half of the season. Vikings.com looked at offense on Wednesday and defense on Thursday.
The Vikings have seen some decrease in production in the return game, on both kickoffs and punts, although the latter has been trending upward.
In 2017 through nine games, Minnesota was averaging 25.4 yards per kickoff return and 10.7 yards per punt return, which ranked No. 4 in the league in both categories. Through nine games this season, the Vikings are averaging 23.5 yards per kickoff return (12th) and 8.5 yards per punt return (13th).
Worth noting, however, is the significant uptick in punt return average over the past five games. Through the first quarter of the 2018 campaign, the Vikings were averaging just 4.0 yards per return on punts. From Weeks 5-9, they averaged 10.2 yards per return. Marcus Sherels, Minnesota's longtime punt return specialist, was sidelined for three games (Weeks 3-5) with an injury.
Priefer spoke while Sherels was out about what he brings to the table for the Vikings special teams.
"Number one, great ball security. He tracks the ball well. He catches the ball well. He catches the ball the same every time it hits," Priefer said, adding that Sherels' consistency is key. "He gets squared at almost every punt. His knee bend is perfect. His start is perfect. He's got a phenomenal first step – all that plays in him being successful."
Over the past few years, there has been a significant turnover of kickers in Minnesota's locker room.
In 2018, the Vikings released Kai Forbath during the preseason and stuck with rookie Daniel Carlson, whom they traded up to draft in the fifth round in April. Carlson missed three field goals against the Packers in Week 2, including two in overtime, and was released. Minnesota then signed former Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey.
"I don't know what it is. I've talked to my counterparts around the league," Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said during his annual bye week session with media members. "I wish I had an answer to that to be resolved, but it's not only us. I know making moves to get Bailey in here was huge for us, for trying to solidify that."
Keeping in mind the Vikings personnel switch after Week 2, their field goal numbers at the bye week are 13 of 19 attempts made. Looking at Bailey's numbers only, the veteran is 12 of 15 with misses from 28 and 45 at Philadelphia and 42 at MetLife Stadium against the Jets.
Bailey has made 16 of 17 extra point attempts.
Across the board, the Vikings have seen improvement in their punting.
Minnesota released punter Ryan Quigley after preseason and signed Matt Wile, who had been cut by the Steelers, on Sept. 2.
Wile got off to a little bit of an inconsistent start but found a rhythm and has been consistently punting for the Vikings.
Through Minnesota's first nine games in 2017, the Vikings were averaging 41.1 yards (39.9 net) per punt and had landed 14 of 36 boots inside the 20-yard line. At this point of the 2018 campaign, Wile has 40 punts to his name and has averaged 44.5 (40.7 net) and dropped 18 inside the 20.
"I think he's continually getting better," Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer said of Wile heading into Week 7. "He's never been the guy for the whole year, and I think he has to understand that every practice, every rep, every jugs rep he takes … it's muscle memory doing the same thing over, over, and over again until it gets to point where he is a consistent punter."
Spielman said there's been "some good and bad" for the Vikings special teams this season and that a number of factors have played into the unit's production.
"I know Coach Priefer is working extremely hard," Spielman said, who pointed out that Minnesota's special teams is a very young group this year. "I think what happened is a lot of those guys who were just playing special teams all of a sudden were playing a lot more offense and defense, so now [Priefer] is the one who has to shuffle all of the pieces around and try to bridge this [or that].
"A lot of the times, you'll see guys alternating in and out of there because they went from being a special teams player to having to play 30, 40, 50 snaps on offense or defense, so then the special teams coach has to adjust and adapt to that," Spielman continued. "A lot of times, I think the young guys that you're playing with continue to grow and develop, too."