Sun, 24 Oct 2021

Vikings Special Teams Earn PFF's Top Grade After Week 1

Minnesota Vikings
19 Sep 2021, 04:37 GMT+10

Eric Smith

EAGAN, Minn. - If you thought players had pregame jitters before Week 1, you should have seen Ryan Ficken.

The Vikings Special Teams Coordinator's nerves were all over the place, which is understandable since he was in that role for the first time after being the assistant special teams coach for the previous eight seasons.

"A lot of emotions. I was pretty jacked up," said Ficken, who has been with the Vikings since the 2007 season. "I mean, my heart was about to beat out of my chest on the kickoff, but it was a lot of fun."

But in the midst of the emotions, there was also an improved product on the field, too, after the Vikings were among the league's worst special teams units across the board in 2020.

After Week 1 - and yes, it's just one game - analytics website Pro Football Focus ranked Vikings special teams first in the league with an overall grade of 81.5. Minnesota was the only team that was graded above 80 among all 32 teams.

Ficken wasn't about to rest on his laurels though, and implored that his phase of the game still needed to be better.

"It was exciting to see that, the first one under our belt, but now we know what we've got to do moving forward," Ficken said, "and there's a lot of things we've got to correct to play more consistently, and we're excited for that.

"We've got a great group of guys on the roster, and we can achieve a lot as long as we play consistently and play Minnesota Vikings football," Ficken added. "It doesn't really matter who else we're playing out there. It's just, it's about us and making sure we play our type of football."

Kicker Greg Joseph was among the standouts, as he calmly hit a career-long, 53-yard field goal at the end of regulation to send the game to overtime. Joseph, playing in his first game since 2019 with Tennessee, also made all three extra points.

"It's difficult. You talk about 50-yard kicks, you don't have a lot of them in the course of a season. Sometimes it can be upwards of around 10," Ficken said. "And if you're 50, 60 percent on those plus-50 kicks, you're having a good season - as long as you're making all your other kicks inside of 50.

"So it's very important," Ficken added. "It's a high-challenge kick, but that's why he's here, because he has that ability to connect on those and help our team put points on the board."

Long snapper Andrew DePaola had a clean day, and new punter Jordan Berry also impressed with by averaging 50.3 yards on eight punts.

Berry, who was added to the roster on Sept. 2, saved his best kick for last: a booming 63-yarder than pinned the Bengals at the 10-yard line in overtime.

And while Minnesota didn't get the win, Berry has drawn praise from Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer and others this week for his ability to flip the field at a crucial time.

Ficken said Berry's play improved throughout the game.

"A lot of it is the technique that we talk about, and we've been coaching and repping it a lot, and he understands that," Ficken said. "And he understands the nuances and the things that we need to correct. Mainly, he has that ability to do that, but it's getting that consistency.

"He did obviously show that at the end of the game when we were able to flip the field, but we just have to do it in a consistent manner," Ficken added. "That goes for all players."

Overall, Minnesota had a solid day on special teams in the season opener.

But the Vikings nearly had a game-changing play midway through the fourth quarter, too. Down 24-21, linebacker Ryan Connelly got his fingertips on a punt that still traveled 43 yards.

If Connelly had blocked it cleanly, the Vikings perhaps would have been in position to score deep in Cincinnati territory.

"It was great to see him get free on that, but we'd like to see us make those plays in those situations," Ficken said. "Very rarely are you in those positions, and he'll do a great job on the next time.

"Whether it's him or another player in that position, I know they're going to come through and help the team win," Ficken added. "But yeah, it was nice to get a little deflection of it, but at the end of the day it still went 43 yards, and we've got to do more in those situations - and in all situations when we take the field - to help our team."

In the return game, Dede Westbrook had a 12-yard punt return and rookie Ihmir Smith-Marsette had a 21-yard kickoff return.

The Vikings now travel to Arizona in Week 2 to face the Cardinals, who rank 29th in PFF grades after one game with a mark of 58.4.

"We want some consistency moving forward, and at the end of the day, we have to find a way to help our team win the football game," Ficken said. "I think our guys are ready and are ready for that challenge for this week."

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