One aspect of Vikings training camp not getting so much attention so far is special teams. But with roughly 20% of plays involving special teams, and the Vikings having a new special teams coordinator, the Vikings may be taking a new approach to an often under-appreciated part of football.
Let’s take a look.
New Coach, New Ideas
A less talked about coaching change this off-season was the departure of Vikings long-time special teams coordinator Mike Priefer. He was replaced by Marwan Maalouf, who had been assistant special teams coach in Miami for the past six seasons. As bad as the Dolphins were over that span, their special teams units were top 10 in many metrics - including blocked punts and field goals.
Be that as it may, it’s fair to say that Maalouf takes a different approach to special teams than his predecessor. Where Mike Priefer generally took a more conservative approach to special teams, Marwan Maalouf may be more aggressive.
Perhaps the key word in describing Maalouf’s approach to special teams is ‘multiple.’
Multiple in terms of the number of punt returners he intends to use. Multiple in terms of the number of kick returners he plans to use. And perhaps even multiple in terms of the number of holders he intends to use.
The reasoning behind having more than one guy in those positions is that it allows for a more tailored approach, based on the opponent, game situation, and even weather.
So, for example, in US Bank stadium against a certain opponent, perhaps you opt for a more speedy returner, whereas in more sloppy conditions outside you may opt for more of a big, physical returner as field conditions negate speed and cutting ability.
Having multiple holders may also provide more options when it comes to fakes.
Of course the downside to the multiple approach is that you may have guys that haven’t had as many reps or practice time on the field, which could lead to more mistakes.
So, that makes it a more aggressive approach- potentially greater risk and reward.
Big Play Approach?
Looking at Miami’s special teams rankings and statistics while Maalouf was assistant under Darren Rizzi, you get the impression that they took more of an aggressive, big play approach with their special teams.
Last year, for example, Miami had:
- 2nd most takeaways on special teams
- Tied for most points scored on special teams
And over his tenure with the Dolphins, they also:
- Had the most blocked punts in the league
- 4th most blocked field goals
And in 2017 they converted four onside kicks (before the kickoff rule changes).
He also helped them do well with many other more routine metrics:
- 90%+ field goals made the past two years, despite having a rookie kicker last year and Cody Parkey (more recently of Bears double doink fame) the year before.
- 2nd lowest opponent net punting yards in NFL (2013-2018)
- Lowest opponent field goal percentage (2013-2018)
- 5th most punts inside the 20 yard line (2013-2018)
Overall, it’s an interesting set of stats and somewhat different than we’ve seen with the Vikings in recent years. I can’t remember the last time the Vikings blocked a punt or field goal, or really made much of an effort to do so.
Big plays aside, I’m sure the Vikings would be happy with a 90% field goal percentage - they were last in the league last year at 68.8%. Average is about 85%. Only about a half-dozen teams have made 90%+ of their field goals in recent years.
Offensive vs. Defensive Approach
Under Mike Priefer, the Vikings tended to take a more conservative, defensive approach to special teams. He seemed more focused on not allowing big plays from opponents - focusing on hang time and coverage, solid fundamentals and not making mistakes. And the Vikings special teams did well overall in achieving those goals.
But in more recent years, as Marcus Sherels got older and Cordarrelle Patterson moved on, returns became less dynamic, and blocking punts or kicks have never seemed like much of a focus.
By contrast, if Maalouf takes after his old boss, Darren Rizzi, he seems likely to take a more offensive approach toward special teams - looking to generate some big plays along with solid results in more traditional metrics.
So far in training camp, he seems to be gearing up that way, testing out half the team it seems for special team duties of one sort or another - leaving no stone unturned in search of the best available returner on the roster.
Testing out holders with different skill sets - guys like Chad Beebe and Adam Thielen - suggests he’s looking for better options for running fake kicks. It will be interesting to see if he experiments with guys better equipped to block kicks and punts as well. I speculated last year (before he was injured) that Hercules Mata’afa could do well in that role, but we’ll have to see how it plays out.
But whatever approach Maalouf takes, restoring confidence and consistency to Vikings kickers has to be a priority. In recent years the Vikings have struggled with consistency, continuity - and probably confidence - in their kickers.
Since 2016 the Vikings have had Blair Walsh, Kai Forbath, Daniel Carlson, and Dan Bailey kick field goals and extra points. They’ve gone from 11th, to 20th, to 32nd (last) in team field goal percentage made in that time. They’ve also been well below average in extra point % made.
Dan Bailey has made 86.6% of his field goal attempts in his career. That’s 5th best among active kickers with at least 100 attempts. He's also made 99% of his extra point attempts - 2nd best among active kickers with at least 200 attempts. But he only made 75% and 96.8% respectively last year.
It’s unclear what Maalouf may do differently to help get Bailey back on track, but it appears a new long snapper may be part of it. The Vikings have also employed a part-time kicking coach in an effort to get better results. So far in training camp, however, Bailey success rate has been below average, albeit with different long snappers and holders. Hopefully that improves as some of the variables are eliminated.
Lastly, Mike Zimmer mentioned that special teams has taken a split-field approach in practices to maximize what they’re able to accomplish with the time they have. For special teams, this means that while the kicker/punter is working on one part of the field, the gunners are working on another, thereby increasing overall reps, albeit in more piecemeal fashion.
There are pros and cons to every approach, but good fundamentals are as key to success on special teams as on offense or defense.
For special teams, expanding the playbook or the number of players involved at a given position necessarily means fewer reps in each concept and for each player. That means coaching needs to be top notch and players smart and talented enough to get it right on fewer reps.
And while that approach is more demanding on players and coaches, it can also reap rewards when well executed - and puts more pressure on opposing special teams units to react and execute as well.
In a highly competitive NFL, trying to get the most out of each phase of the game is key to success. And with around 20% of plays involving special teams, getting a little more from those units can make the difference between winning and losing close games.
Which Viking holds the (unofficial) NFL record for most blocked kicks all-time ?
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