Big plays were en vogue in Houston as the Texans beat the Vikings 28-24 in the preseason finale.
Vikings still evaluating Wright on returns
Percy Harvin is the preferred option at kick returner, but his reps will be monitored alongside his use on offense during the regular season. That leaves the punt return job as the only truly unsettled competition on special teams as the team heads into its fourth preseason game.
Marcus Sherels is the reliable incumbent that fields the ball cleanly but hasn't given the Vikings much explosiveness. Last year, he was the only Viking to return a punt and averaged 8.4 yards on 33 returns.
The only real challenger left for Sherels is rookie receiver Jarius Wright, who averaged 14.5 yards on two returns Friday night against the San Diego Charger, including a 24-yard return that special teams coordinator Mike Priefer thought could have been a touchdown.
"He did a nice job on his return. I thought he should have broke that tackle," Priefer said. "I don't think he ran with enough conviction there and when he saw it on tape I think he believed what I was telling him. You've got to run hard. He's not a small man. He's not a real big guy, but he's strong enough to break through those arm tackles and I would have liked to have seen him do that because if he does I think we're going to score because we've got two more blocks coming downfield."
However, Priefer praised Wright for doing other small things correctly. After Sherels averaged 2.5 yards on two returns, Wright got his opportunity in the second quarter against the Chargers. On his initial opportunity, he drifted like he was going to catch the ball and got drilled as the ball went over his shoulder and into the end zone, drawing a personal foul penalty.
"He made a great decision on the bluff and got us an extra 15 yards," Priefer said. "We weren't trying to get him hit there, (but) that was a good decision on his part."
But, despite those decisions in the game, it's hard for Priefer to overlook the struggles Wright has had fielding punts during practices outside. That has been happening too often for comfort throughout training camp and preseason practices.
"It's a lot easier indoors and he's gotten better. When it gets outside and it gets a little bit windy, he's a little bit squirrely," Priefer.
That might be the only thing holding Priefer back from feeling comfortable enough to move forward with Wright as the top returner in the regular season. That, of course, a major issue.
Priefer said last week that ball security is his top priority with his returners and that's why he wasn't ready to commit to Wright on Monday as his return man for the regular season.
"Let's talk after Thursday. We're not quite there yet," Priefer said. "He's improved every week, so I am pleased with that. And I'm not ready to throw Marcus away, either. I think Marcus is going to be a good punt returner as well. But the competition is good thing at all these spots."
Unfortunately for the Vikings' evaluation process, the roof of Reliant Stadium is expected to be closed for Thursday night's game with a forecasted high of 92 degrees and scattered thunderstorms.
The Texans will provide one somewhat unique challenge for Wright and the Vikings, as they have left-footed kicker Donnie Jones. In preparation for that, the Vikings will set up their JUGS machine to create that spin on the ball this week in practice.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
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