Ryan Ficken’s Improved Vikings Special Teams

Oct 10, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings kicker Greg Joseph (1) and his teammates celebrate after Joseph kicks a 54 yard field goal as time expires to defeat the Detroit Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Before this season, the Minnesota Vikings special teams were in shambles for some time. Last season was terrible. Dan Bailey couldn’t kick a field goal, Britton Colquitt was amongst the worst punters in the league, and the Vikings had no return game to speak of.

The Vikings special teams unit was simply a disaster.

After two years as the special teams coordinator, Marwan Maalouf was replaced by his former assistant coach Ryan Ficken. Nine games into his first season as coordinator, Ficken has already overseen a vast improvement in many areas — with a complete overhaul of personnel in the critical special teams positions like placekicker, punter, and returners.

Greg Joseph has done a steady job as a placekicker but not without disappointing moments — most notably the missed 37-yard field goal as time expired against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 2. The South African bounced back from that blow and has been solid with his kicking. He has successfully made 20 of his 21 extra-point attempts, the one miss also coming in Week 2. He has been successful with 19 of his 23 field goal attempts, putting 77 points on the board for the Vikings. That’s solid performance. Every kicker in the league has missed some kicks, even the great Justin Tucker has missed two field goals this season.

A walk-off field goal against the Detroit Lions demonstrated an ability to deliver in the clutch moment. Joseph hasn’t missed a kick the last three weeks, which is a good roll to be on. It’s nice to see some consistency at the position, especially since there has been kicker turmoil throughout the league this season. There have been 42 different kickers across the league already (obviously, 10 more than total teams). Joey Slye is already on his third team.

New punter Jordan Berry settled in nicely, and the former Steeler has undoubtedly improved over Britton Colquitt. Through nine games, the Australian has 1972 punting yards at an average of 47.0, with a long of 63 and only one touchback. His big leg has been most impressive when getting the team out of trouble when backed up. Giving the opposition the ball back in good field position due to a short punt that happened too often during Colquitt’s run in the team.

The sole blemish was a blocked punt that happened against the Carolina Panthers that resulted in a touchdown. Other than that, special teams execution has run smoothly — something Ryan Ficken deserves plenty of praise for.

Last season, the punt return game was nonexistent. Chad Beebe and K.J. Osborn combined for an embarrassing total of 69 yards over the entire season – thankfully, it turns out Osborn is a good wide receiver.

Beebe’s and Osborn’s averages of 4.67 and 3.86 yards per return were unsurprisingly abysmal, as was their longest return — a meager 13 yards for Beebe and an even worse eight yards for Osborn. That tale of woe doesn’t even include the muffed punts, something both were guilty of.

The signing of Dede Westbrook, a player with returning experience from his four-year tenure with the Jacksonville Jaguars, gave the Vikings a much better outlook on the position. Westbrook has been solid if unspectacular but has still already surpassed the total return yards of last season before last Sunday’s game against the Chargers. — his first big return in a Vikings jersey. A 45-yard return set up the Vikings offense on the Chargers 28-yard line. Through nine games, Westbrook has 121 return yards at an average of 8.07 yards a return. Another undisputed upgrade from last season.

As a rookie in 2015, Ameer Abdullah amassed an incredible league-leading 1077 kick return yards. Abdullah never repeated that season’s success and never looked capable during his time in Minnesota. He was a steady and reliable kick return specialist for the Vikings, but there was never any sign of an explosive game-changing play. The longest returns in his first three seasons in Minnesota were just 33, 38, and 33.

General manager Rick Spielman used the draft to freshen up the roster with some return specialists, drafting Kene Nwangwu in the fourth round and Ihmir Smith-Marsette in the fifth. Nwangwu started the season on injured reserve, so it was Smith-Marsette who got the first crack at the job until being sidelined by a toe injury, which led to Abdullah taking back his old job for a few weeks. Then came Nwangwu.

That moment came in Week 9 in Baltimore, and what a moment it was.

A stunning 98-yard return for a touchdown would have been fantastic on its own, but add to that a 9 yard run on a fake punt — the type of excitement and creativity we’ve not been blessed with on Vikings special teams. Honestly, I was just happy if we didn’t muff the catch or get our punts blocked last season.

Now, I have expectations of this unit not just being solid but capable of making something exciting happen. That is some turnaround in half a season. For that, I tip my hat to Ryan Ficken.

The new personnel has made a big difference, but the coach deserves plenty of credit, especially for making a gutsy call like a fake punt, which they tried again against the Chargers. But the play was blown dead because an official was out of position. How annoying.

Special teams are often overlooked as the other part of the game, but there’s a reason why it is so valued by Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots have been so successful. Special teams can certainly do things to help you win games. They can put points on the board and put your offense and defense in good positions.

What it really can do, though, is lose games — remember Dan Bailey missing kick after kick against the Buccaneers last season? It was oodles of surrendering good field position with blocked, muffed, or just plain bad punts — all things that continually put the Vikings in bad spots last season.

It has been so much better this season, and long may that continue. To date, Ryan Ficken looks an excellent appointment as special teams coordinator.