If there are any major concerns with a Vikings team heading to San Francisco to open up the 2015 season on national TV, one of them has to be Blair Walsh.
Walsh, a rookie phenom who was booming kicks all over the place, has seemingly developed a bit of the yips and notably struggled during the preseason. What a great time to move the extra point kicks back, making a sure thing now a question mark.
The reason I bring up Walsh’s struggles is because it does have an impact on games. So does the entire special teams unit, although they are often overlooked when breaking down a team.
So what exactly are we getting from this group in 2015? Let’s take a look.
Vikings To Watch:
No surprise here, Patterson can change a game in one play and although he hasn’t developed into the true wide receiver the Vikings had hoped for, his ability to hurt teams on kick returns is still very real.
Patterson had a mediocre year in 2014, especially when compared to 2013 when he ran crazy on teams. Even so, Patterson averaged 25 yards per return and is a threat to score on any play.
Patterson will drive fans crazy at times when fielding the ball 8 yards deep in the end zone and insisting on trying to return it. Ultimately, it’s kind of the risk you take with a player like Patterson. It’s all of nothing with him and frankly, I’ll take the opportunity to get six occasionally and start at the 15 occasionally as well.
Thielen makes this team for the second consecutive year because of his ability to be damn good on special teams. While I was at training camp, I noted that Thielen is very underrated when it comes to his defense on punt returns. He’s a very good gunner and someone who is a lot of fun to watch.
Even if we forget about his blocked punt and return for a touchdown last year, Thielen earns his keep for his ability to serve as a gunner and kick/punt returner. The fun thing about players like Thielen is they become so well rounded because they have to be in order to make the team. Thielen really is one of the more versatile Vikings due to him needing to keep getting better and better. We’re starting to see the fruits of the labor.
I think the Vikings would be silly not to get Diggs involved on punt returns. Everything that Patterson is for kick returns, Diggs is for punt returns. He can take it to the house each and every time he touches the ball.
Diggs is an upgrade at punt returning over Marcus Sherels, but that’s not the only reason I’m keeping Sherels out of these situations. Frankly, we just need Sherels to be healthy as depth at cornerback – a position that does seem a bit suspect right now.
As I noted above, Walsh can have maybe the biggest impact on special teams and it’s important the Vikings figure out what glitch there is in the system during the preseason.
The Vikings offense will be good. Especially good enough to frequently get into field goal range often. Walsh’s ability to be solid in that aspect will win the Vikings football games. If he continues to struggle, he could prove to be the reason why the Vikings lose some games, too.
Regardless of Walsh’s field goal kicking, his ability to boom the ball deep into the back of the end zone helps the Vikings maintain a strong field position game, and eliminates a lot of opportunity for opponents to find points on kick returns.
49ers To Watch
A rookie punter from Clemson, Pinion seems to have a very strong leg and landed 5 of his preseason punts within the 20 yard line. Not bad for a rookie.
You’d suspect that 49ers will ask Pinion to back the Vikings up as far as possible, especially if they’ve noted Digg’s potential to score in the return game. Here’s a guess: they have absolutely noted that.
Hyde has been getting quite a bit of press as a former rugby star who has turned his focus to the NFL. Seemingly a long shot to make the final roster, Hyde did enough to earn his keep with the 49ers.
I think Hyde will serve as the main punt return man for San Francisco and has shown enough to make the Vikings keep an eye on him in that aspect.
Patton is essentially the equivalent of the Vikings Adam Thielen, but is supremely talented and misguided. After being a 4th round pick for the Niners, Patton will be asked to do more in the passing game in 2015, but will also contribute on special teams.
Patton’s biggest splash this preseason came from a blocked punt and return for a touchdown. A wide receivers athleticism can be a huge advantage for a special teams unit.
Will the special teams steal the spotlight on Monday night? Time will tell, I suppose. I can promise they won’t get as many headlines as others going into the game, but their performance might be highlighted if their impact is felt like is has in the past.