Reggie Bush (Chris Graythen/Getty)
The Vikings were burned by Reggie Bush twice on punt returns last year, but they feel a change in scheme, personnel and in Chris Kluwe will help them in the NFC Championship Game.
The Vikings defense held Dallas to three points in their divisional playoff game. The offense scored 34 in efficient fashion. And the special teams put up no big numbers, which, in many ways, is a good thing.
While Brett Favre, Sidney Rice and Ray Edwards garner the accolades, a group of marauding men who generally fly under the radar are being praised for a group effort that translated, in some cases, to a bunch of zeroes.
The Dallas kickoff return men, Kevin Ogletree and Felix Jones, averaged 15.4 yards on their seven attempts and the Vikings had contributions from all levels of their roster making contributions on the special teams. Starting safety Tyrell Johnson and backup defenders Husain Abdullah and Heath Farwell each had two special-teams tackles. Jarmarca Sanford and Albert Young contributed one each.
And the Cowboys were effectively stymied.
“Different cats that have stepped up,” Vikings coach Brad Childress said. “.. I think (special teams coordinator Brian Murphy) does a good job of moving those guys around so it’s a “Where’s Waldo?” – you can’t find them. Yet they’re all capable of defeating their guy and being able to get down the field and make a play.”
Ryan Longwell credited a combination of a new philosophy this year, the return of Farwell and the speed added with other players making contributions.
“We have a lot more savvy with Heath back. We didn’t have Heath last year, but we have so much speed with Jamarca and even Jasper (Brinkley) coming on the back side and our guys flying down the field,” Longwell said. “And we’ve gone to a new scheme of directional kicking, where they know where the ball is going before we kick it, which is a huge advantage for us.”
The punt coverage was just as solid. Chris Kluwe punted five times for a gross average of 45.6 yards, but the Cowboys didn’t have any punt-return yardage. Patrick Crayton, who finished the season averaging a healthy 12.1 yards per return, was stopped on his only attempt. He also fair-caught one, as did Terrence Newman, and Kluwe kicked one out of bounds and one for a touchback.
The Vikings will need to be on point once again Sunday in the Superdome. Reggie Bush entered the Saints’ divisional-round playoff game averaging only 4.8 yards per punt return, but he showed he still has explosion in the playoff game.
Against the Arizona Cardinals, he had 84 yards rushing on five attempts, breaking one for a 46-yard touchdown and returned his first punt for a touchdown all season.
Of course, the Vikings haven’t forgotten what Bush did to them last year, when he returned two punts for touchdowns.
“I was needling Kluwe on Saturday already, just because they had played and I saw (Bush) return it and it brought back memories, some not so good,” Longwell said. “Kluwe is a great punter. He’s a better punter this year. He’s really had a great year doing what Murph has asked him to do. He has a home-run leg, just as strong as anybody in the league, and Murph has asked him to dial it back and hit more hang time and he’s done that this year. A lot tougher to return on that.”
As the Vikings look to contain Bush, Kluwe is coming off one his better performances of the season and the coverage units have seen a lot of turnover since last year. Murphy estimated that half of the players from last year’s coverage unit are no longer in those roles and he feels good about what he has gotten from this year’s group.
“Those guys that play in the kicking game there, they’re a good group of guys. When they set their mind to something, they tend to find a way to get things done,” Murphy said.
The Saints game last year turned into a spectacle afterwards as well. When Kluwe failed to kick it out of bounds after being instructed to do so, the Vikings brought in punters for tryouts to send him a message.
“It just blew into a huge circus that didn’t need to happen,” Longwell said. “The one punt that Reggie returned was literally a foot from the sideline and that’s just an unlikely break. If it’s literally a foot to the side, it’s a moot point. Not too fun, but we did win the game.”
Longwell and Childress both looked back on that incident and smiled on Monday, knowing that aspect of their team has improved a lot because of a change in scheme, Kluwe getting more hangtime and the coverage units executing their assignments with more consistency.
“I think that we will go back and revisit our last trip we had to the (Superdome) and probably have a little sit-down about that to see if either one of us has evolved in our processes in communicating that,” Childress said. “I don’t want to give any competitive advantage to how or where we will kick the ball. (Bush) is a very good returner as you know and I know.”
Coming off one of their better special teams performances in years, the Vikings have to feel like they are in a better position to limit Bush’s return success in their return to the Superdome. But, still, they know he remains a dangerous option and will have to counter with a good punting and coverage performance.
“(Kluwe is) a better weapon for us going into this game than he was last year, and I think (he) will tell you that,” Longwell said. “It was one of those things, Monday night football, caught on national TV. Unfortunately for us, Reggie seems like the guy he was last year with his return Saturday night.”
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.