Vikings launch unit dominates with creativity, passion and a pinch of data

EAGAN — There’s no game less exciting in the NFL than kickoff. According to Pro-Football Reference, there were 647 kick-offs and just 202 kick-offs in the first four weeks of the 2022 season. That’s just 31% of kick-offs resulting in some type of kick-off. excitement. The Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Chargers have only allowed one return all year.

The Minnesota Vikings, led by special teams coordinator Matt Daniels, picked their spots to buck the sleepy kickoff trend. During training camp, Daniels explained that his research revealed that kicking the ball out of the end zone and giving the opponent the ball at the 25-yard line was a missed opportunity to do better. His logic is that the returning team must put up a very successful game to get past 25 and a lot of things could go wrong trying to do that. They could fumble the ball, commit a penalty or have a bad return that would delay the attack.

PFF crunched the numbers in a 2018 study and found that teams that settled for touchbacks on average gave up field position. Eric Eager of PFF wrote:

“Kicks that landed short of the end zone were returned 25 or better less than 44% of the time, suggesting that the hitting team also acted suboptimally when hitting it if frequently in the end zone. In 2016, Caleb Sturgis and the Eagles kickoff team generated more than 23 expected runs by covering 41 of his 87 kickoffs and allowing an average starting position on the 22-yard line. It is not a negligible amount. Cody Parkey was also good for the Dolphins last year, scoring a touchdown on just 28 of 67 kickoffs, which gave him an average starting position on the 21-yard line, which also earned his team more than 24 points expected.

In theory, that sounds good. Let them win. But it also reminds me of the story of Tony Dungy wanting to kick the ball to Devin Hester in the Super Bowl because he wanted to set the tone and not play scare. They opened the game by kicking the greatest returner of all time and Chris Berman would say, WHOOP. Landing.

So the Vikings don’t kick everyone all the time. But they start at an above average pace, executing 12 of their 20 kicks out of the end zone and allowing eight returns in four games. In terms of expected points added, here’s what the results look like:

What the chart says is: the expected points on a practice that starts at the 25-yard line is 0.61 (per Pro-Football reference) and the Vikings have reduced their opponent’s expected points on every return this year, including two where the starting field position is so bad that the expected points were negative. In other words, it really works for Daniels’ crew.

Part of the reason for the success is that the Vikings do more than just send the ball deep. They play chess with their kickoffs by having kicker Greg Joseph throw the ball high in the air and aiming for the corner of the field. Daniels said assistant coach Ben Kotwica studied kickoffs that landed outside the numbers and found none had been dismissed for a touchdown in the past decade.

“Greg’s ability to put those balls outside the numbers creates even more havoc and confusion and makes it harder for the returning team to turn the ball over,” Daniels said.

This chaos and confusion caused four of the eight returns to be 15 yards or less, including one from 4 yards by Quez Watkins of the Eagles.

So if the Vikings’ kickoff strategy is nothing short of brilliant, why isn’t every team pinning their opponents deep and off the numbers rather than kicking? Well, it takes more than idea and data to put them together. One of the reasons the numbers show it works is that the only teams that do it are the ones that can execute the patterns.

Daniels said it starts with the staff.

“We have elite, flying, penetrating guys who feel like they’re unblockable and they feel it,” Daniels said. “I’m looking for competition junkies and these guys want to compete.”

Of the eight kick-offs this year, seven different players have been credited with a tackle. The Vikings have a combination of players who are either experienced on teams like fullback CJ Ham, cornerback Kris Boys and safety Josh Metellus or young players who have impressive physical tools i.e. 2022 third-round pick Brian Asamoah, who has become a legit weapon. for Daniels.

“You look at a guy who has a combination of speed and power in his waist, his arms are so long he can scratch his knees standing up,” Daniels said of Asamoah. “His ability to hit guys and get apart is everything, especially when you look at kickoffs… I’m sure the opponents see him as a match problem.”

The next step is designing and teaching the play. A lot of effort goes into training players on angles, lanes, overhead kicks, block defeats and tackles.

Special Teams Football Academy owner Chris Husby, who also coaches special teams at Maple Grove High School and consults with varsity teams, explained how the corner kickoff design works.

“It’s like you’re casting a fishing net, you’re trying to cast it as wide as you can,” said Husby, who also cast for St. Thomas in the early 2000s. guys converging down and slowly closing and pinning them like a funnel system. You take advantage of one side of the field. That’s why bettors do a directional punt, they don’t just kick in the middle of the field. They’re almost using a kickoff coverage strategy now.

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Of course, you know what happens if a fishing net gets tangled. The concern with giving the returner a chance is that he might squeak if the kick isn’t perfect or the techniques aren’t correct. The cover unit can’t just have the cover players all yelling at the returner.

“We use this term ‘lane integrity,’ that everyone at kickoff has a lane that you have to go and you can’t stray too far from it,” Husby said. “There’s a balance between taking a block and trying to get past them without getting too far out of your lane because they’re trying to block you in a certain direction to open up the hole.”

The ball must also go where the covering players expect it to go. Daniels cited Joseph’s ability to consistently put the ball outside the numbers without it going out of bounds as the reason for his confidence in the corner. It doesn’t hurt that the Vikings are playing inside, giving their kicker a static environment to work with for the majority of games.

“It’s almost like a golf swing, if you’re under the ball a little bit more or if you go up and through the ball more, you can cause more hang time,” Husby said. “In my opinion, directional kickoffs and directional punts aren’t that hard because they’re all angles. If you always go left or right, you don’t need to hide your configuration. The steps are exactly the same, you just preset your angle and as long as it’s the same you should have the accuracy to drive the ball into a small window.

The Vikings need to be prepared for a sleight of hand on a kickoff at some point, whether it’s a backhand or a pitch or whatever clever opposing coaches make up in response to Daniels’ strategy. By the way, a side effect of doing something unique on special teams is that the other team has to spend more time on it. They can’t just run their standard throwback games.

“Special teams coaches just have to get a little creative because other teams are like, ‘They could do five or six different things against us,'” Husby said. “I think there are so many things that can be done to make special teams more exciting and less predictable.”

There’s something else at play when it comes to Daniels’ kickoff that goes beyond numbers and execution – something that can’t be quantified. The Vikings special teams coach said he asked the unit ahead of time if they wanted to kick the corner. He leaves it up to them to decide. Sometimes a player might struggle with an injury and ask for him to throw him into the back of the end zone and Daniels will oblige, but if not he usually wants to go in there and try to help his defense by giving to attack a long field.

“I’m like, do you want to put it in play or kick it, how do you feel?” said Daniels. “I trust these guys to make this decision. If they feel good about it, I feel good about it.

“For us to go out there and pin guys inside the 20 is a mindset,” Daniels added. “I’m looking for competition junkies and these guys want to compete.”

Daniels created the unit’s membership that stands out from previous years. Special teams have hats with “ST” on them and have adopted their leader’s passion for “teams”.

“He shows us off and shows his confidence in us and lets us let go,” Joseph said. “That says a lot without saying a lot. It’s really well translated. As a former paymaster, he gets things that some people might not get.

Head coach Kevin O’Connell noticed the way Daniels connected with his players – and even wore the ‘ST’ hat to acknowledge their play.

“I think with coaches in general, when you can really tell they have an impact on their group [is when] the unit is starting to take on some of their characteristics, and they’re taking on the traits of this coach,” O’Connell said. “And from day one, I’ve enjoyed sitting in the back of these meetings. How he communicates, how he talks to these guys, how they feel capable of being their best.

The defense noticed it too. There’s nothing better for them than running down the pitch after ‘Teams made a big play and forced the opposing attack to start at their own 15-yard line.

“These guys are the first to start the game, whether it’s kickoff return or kickoff coverage, these guys set the tone,” Patrick Peterson said. “They took that to heart.”

Peterson said he can sense when the opposition’s attack is choppy by being pushed back into his own end zone further than intended.

“You can sense when a team is in press mode or when teams want to be cautious when backed up,” Peterson said. “Our special teams are doing a great job of putting fear in people’s hearts.”

That’s exactly what they did. In the first four games, the Vikings’ special teams unit has been a weapon. They rank No. 1 in the NFL in the average starting position of their opponents.

“Our identity is starting to come through and for us as a team, I think it’s really encouraging with what you see on tape and where we’re headed, I’m really excited about that,” Daniels said.

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