Opponents trying to pull fast ones on Vikings' special teams
[size=10pt]Opponents trying to pull fast ones on Vikings' special teams[/size]
Happens once, call it chance. Twice? Hmmmm, interesting.
But what would you call it when opponents use a special teams trick play in three consecutive games?
So goes the dilemma facing the Vikings this week. Has it been a sign of glaring deficiency? Or is it a compliment to a group that can't be defeated by conventional means?
"It's neither," special teams coordinator Paul Ferraro said Thursday. "Any time you get one of those things, it could be combination. They might see a chink in your armor, or it's just something they want to do to see how you're going to respond to it. Each situation is different."
Give the Vikings a 2-1 record in dealing with the trickery. In one case, they took advantage of three mistakes. They appeared fooled in another and employed an important coaching point in the third.
The unusual streak began last month against Carolina, which attempted an ill-fated pass on a punt return. The next week, Chicago kick returner Rashied Davis faked a similar pass and capitalized with a 35-yard return.
Buffalo, meanwhile, tried to catch the Vikings by surprise with a pop-up kickoff in its 17-12 victory; a heads-up play from offensive lineman Jason Whittle prevented the Bills from gaining possession.
During practice last week, players watched film of Buffalo attempting a similar kickoff. Ferraro told Whittle, Mike Rosenthal and Jim Kleinsasser -- who comprise the middle of their return team -- to wave their arms in a fair-catch motion if they saw the ball coming.
"As long as you wave for a fair catch," Whittle said, "they have to give you an opportunity to catch it."
A stiff wind held up the ball, and Whittle was several yards away when Bills cover man Kiwaukee Thomas caught the live ball. But because Whittle had waved his arm, officials ruled that Thomas should have backed away.
Had the Bills spotted a weakness in the Vikings' return unit and targeted Whittle? Considering that most teams use linemen in that position, none of whom are known for their hands, it's more likely that Buffalo coaches believed the wind at Ralph Wilson Stadium would wreak havoc on any attempt to catch the ball.
"That's something you always have to be ready for," Whittle said. "It's not uncommon for people do that that. It keeps guys from cheating away from the line before the ball is kicked."
The other two plays are not nearly as common. The Panthers, in fact, designed the play with Ferraro in mind; he was their assistant special teams coach last season. Carolina coaches had noticed the Vikings moving out of their coverage lanes during preseason games and believed they could throw a cross-field pass against them.
But Chris Gamble's pass to Richard Marshall failed for three reasons. First, Marshall -- who was lined up across from Vikings "gunner" Ronyell Whitaker -- fell down while setting up the return and was late arriving at his spot.
Second, no one blocked Vikings cover man Will Hunter, who was lined up in the left slot position and watched the play develop in front of him.
Hunter was bearing down on Marshall when Gamble made the third mistake: declining his option to hold the ball. Hunter tackled Marshall and Jason Glenn recovered the fumble.
"You've got to stay in your lanes and get some width," said Heath Farwell, who plays on most of the Vikings special teams. "If you have too many guys bottled up, you're susceptible to a throwback or a reverse or something like that."
At most, Vikings players are coached to "squeeze" one lane over when the ball is kicked toward a sideline. But the Vikings didn't maintain that discipline the following week, when Davis' fake pass helped clear the way for him to return a first-quarter kickoff to the Vikings 43-yard line.
Ferraro said the Vikings had discussed the possibility of a fake pass but had not practiced it entering the Bears game.
"We have rules for that and ... we didn't react to it the way the rules state," Ferraro said. "Sometimes when you don't practice things and you talk about them, you need to go back and practice them. That was on me that we didn't respond the correct way. ... We've certainly worked on that since then, and I don't see that being an issue."