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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Vikings’ 2015 Grades: Walsh’s season comes full circle for uneven special teams

By Andrew Krammer

This is the third in a three-part series reviewing the 2015 Minnesota Vikings. For a review of the offense, click here. For the defense, click here.

Blair Walsh started and finished his fourth NFL season in the spotlight.

A preseason slump turned into Walsh’s best regular season since his Pro Bowl rookie year, leading the league with 34 field goals made. He was the reason the Vikings carried a 9-0 lead into the fourth quarter of this month’s frigid wild-card game vs. Seattle. And his shanked 27-yard, game-winning attempt added to the Vikings’ playoff infamy, ending their season in a 10-9 loss.

As a whole, the Vikings’ play on special teams was equally uneven. Minnesota remained at 10th in the Dallas Morning News’ annual rankings of the NFL’s special teams, though the Vikings’ strengths and weaknesses shifted in the fifth season under special teams coordinator Mike Priefer.

The same number of draft picks (10) as players on injured reserve (10) added to the annual challenge for Priefer, who once again worked with one of the league’s youngest rosters. As many special teams players were elevated to starting roles, some, like safety Andrew Sendejo, were asked to continue serving on the third phases. The Vikings’ only blocked kick came on the first drive of 2015, when Sendejo broke through to swat away a 28-yard attempt in San Francisco. Three plays later, Walsh missed a 44-yard attempt.

The kicking game was full of peaks and valleys, including the league’s best kickoff return team (28.3 yards per) and the most kick/punt returns for touchdowns (3), compared to one of the worst kick coverage units (26.1 yards per) and punter Jeff Locke’s career-low 41.6-yard average — worst in the NFL. They had one kick blocked when Oakland’s Keith McGill broke through between Austin Shepherd and Rhett Ellison to deflect a 39-yard Walsh attempt.

Behind Cordarrelle Patterson’s league-best 31.8 yards per kickoff return, the Vikings boasted the second-best starting field position after kickoffs (24.6-yard line), according to Football Outsiders. Patterson scored twice on kickoff returns, and punt returner Marcus Sherels chipped in another return for a score during the Vikings’ Week 8 win at Soldier Field. Since Mike Zimmer took over, special teams aggression has been encouraged and that showed with a fake punt in the first drive of the Week 17 division title game at Lambeau Field. Adam Thielen took a direct snap for 41 yards into Packers’ territory, setting up a field goal. They were also one of the least-penalized groups on special teams, with 12 flags ranking third in the league.

Below are individual grades for three specialists. Grades are based on a 1-5 scale, with ‘5′ marking an excellent season, ‘4′ for above-average, ‘3′ for average, ‘2′ for below-average and ‘1′ for failure to perform.


• Blair Walsh (3.5): Signed a four-year extension worth up to $14 million during training camp and immediately hit the skids, creating some concern he had to overcome during the regular season. Criticized by for going “too fast” through his preparation during an uneven five-game exhibition slate, in which Walsh had more missed field goals (6) than made (5). Started the season 6-for-8 [75%], including a 38-yard attempt wide left in the Vikings’ 23-20 loss at Denver. The Vikings stood by Walsh and he paid off their trust with 17 straight field goals after that miss, including game winners against Chicago in Week 8 and St. Louis in Week 9. Improved from a down 2014 and finished 13th among qualified kickers in field goal percentage [87.2%]. Played 14 of 17 games outdoors, kicking 25-of-29 [86.2%] on those field goals, including one blocked attempt in Oakland. Near perfect navigating the December/January weather by converting 13-of-14 outdoor field goals. Hadn’t missed a field goal all season at TCF Bank Stadium until his game-losing, 27-yard shank in the Vikings’ wild-card loss. Finished a two-year stay at the Vikings’ temporary home with a 28-of-33 [84.8%] conversion rate on field goal attempts. Hit a 50-plus field goal in three straight December games. Made 6-of-8 [75%] from beyond 50 yards, his best rate since going 10-for-10 from deep as a rookie. Best games came in Detroit and against the Giants, converting five field goals in each, including two 53-yard boots. Season long came on a 54-yard field goal in Arizona. Missed the uprights on attempts from 27, 38, 44, 51 and 53 yards. Had struggles with the extended extra point from 33 yards, missing a career-high four PATs [33-of-37] to rank 28th in the league [89.2%]. Returners tested the Vikings’ kickoff coverage more, helping contribute to Walsh’s lowered touchback rate [54.7%, down from 61.3% last year]. Opponents’ average start from kickoffs at the Vikings’ 22.8-yard line ranked 26th in the league, according to Football Outsiders, in part because of big returns allowed like Jeff Janis’ 70-yard return in the Week 11 loss to Green Bay and Tyler Lockett’s 47-yard return in the Week 13 loss to Seattle.

• Kevin McDermott (3.0): Signed a two-year, $1.26 million contract in March as competition for incumbent Cullen Loeffer. Won the long-snapper job during training camp, ending Loeffler’s 11-year run with the Vikings. Escaped 17 starts without any game-altering mistakes for his third different team in three NFL seasons. Brought continuity with punter Jeff Locke, as the two played together as part of the same draft class out of UCLA. Some noticeable off snaps came in Week 9 against St. Louis, including one saved by Locke for a season-long, 61-yard punt (41-yard net). Successfully angled the direct snap to Adam Thielen on the 41-yard run off a fake punt in Green Bay. Had one tackle. Not penalized. Under contract for 2016.

• Jeff Locke (2.0): Started another uneven season backed up at his own 3-yard line, failing to cross midfield on a 39-yard, arching punt — his first of the season — in San Francisco. Locke booted 66 punts in the regular season and saw his average dip to a career-low 41.-6 yards per attempt, ranking 32nd among all qualified punters. Net average also fell to a career low (37.8). Improved in punts downed inside the 20-yard line (23, up from 21) and touchbacks (5, down from 6) for one of the league’s best punt coverage units. The Vikings’ 5.2-yard punt return average against tied for fifth in the league. Locke started off smoother before a rocky middle of the season, pinning 13 punts inside the 20 compared to just one touchback in the first seven games. But Locke’s uneven leg was on full display during a season-high eight punts in the Week 9 win against St. Louis. Juxtaposed a 54-yard bomb to the Rams’ 12 with consecutive weak fourth-quarter attempts (29, 41 yards) that helped set up the Rams for consecutive shots at the game-tying field goal. Had some of his best games on the road outdoors, pinning three punts inside the 20 in the Week 4 loss at Denver and the Week 8 win at Chicago. Took an intentional safety in the closing minute of a Week 7 win in Detroit. Admittedly could’ve made a better hold on Walsh’s 27-yard miss in the playoff loss, with laces inside. Said he hadn’t spun the laces around on many of Walsh’s four field goal attempts in that game, one of the coldest in NFL history, because of the frozen turf. Entering the final year of his rookie contract in 2016.

The post Vikings’ 2015 Grades: Walsh’s season comes full circle for uneven special teams appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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