Erratic special teams have been a signature of Vikings’ odd season

After the Vikings punted on their first series of the game on Sunday, their defense got a three-and-out when Aaron Rodgers' downfield pass was just a little too high for Aaron Jones, forcing Pat O'Donnell to punt. Josh Metellus sliced through the Packers' line on a stunt, overwhelmed punt protector Dalton Leavitt and became the first NFL player since 1995 to record blocked punts in back-to-back games. Leavitt recovered the ball, the Vikings tackled him at the Green Bay 2 and took a 3-0 lead with a field goal.

On the ensuing kickoff, Jalen Nailor took his spot immediately to kicker Greg Joseph's left, and ran to the right of Joseph, William Kwenkeu and Troy Dye while Metellus tried to fight around the Packers' Jonathan Garvin to the left. The Packers' Keisean Nixon, the NFL's leading kick returner, exploited the gap for a 105-yard touchdown that electrified the Lambeau Field crowd and began the Packers' run of 41 unanswered points. Patrick Jones took Nailor's spot on the coverage unit for the Vikings' final three kickoffs of the day.

The wild swings on special teams, which changed the complexion of the Vikings' 41-17 loss at Lambeau Field, also served as a microcosm for a season when coordinator Matt Daniels' units have been both the initiators and the victims of some of the NFL's biggest special teams plays this season.

There have been only four kick returns for touchdowns in the NFL this season; after Nixon's 105-yard touchdown on Sunday, the Vikings are the only team to have scored and allowed a kick return TD.

The Vikings are one of nine teams in the NFL to recover two fumbles on punt returns this season. Two weeks ago, the Vikings became one of four teams to allow a blocked punt return for a score when JoJo Domann gave the Colts their first touchdown of their 33-point first half.

NFL kickers are 5-for-13 on field goals of 60 yards or more this season; five of the attempts, and four of the successful ones, have come in Vikings games. Greg Joseph, who won NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors last week for his 61-yard field goal to beat the Giants as time ran out, made his 21st consecutive field goal or extra point in the first quarter on Sunday.

He then missed his next two field-goal attempts, one to the left and the other to the right, and dropped back down to the league's fourth-worst field goal percentage this year. Joseph has had two kicks blocked this season, becoming the first Vikings kicker with two blocked field goals in a year since Blair Walsh in 2014.

Teams have the league's sixth-worst average starting field position against the Vikings, thanks in part to punter Ryan Wright ranking eighth in both net punting average (43.0) and percentage of punts inside an opponent's 20-yard line (44.4). Kene Nwangwu, who's returned more kickoffs than anyone in the league, ranks third in average return yardage.

According to Football Outsiders' Defense-Adjusted Value over Average metric, the Vikings have the second-worst special teams unit in the league, with a performance that's 4.3% worse than the league average. But that's painting with too broad a brush for a group that's been terrific in some phases and dreadful in others.

On kickoff coverage and punt returns, they've got the worst DVOA in the league. On field goals and extra points, they're second-worst. They're 21st in punt coverage, just below the league average. And on kick returns, they're third-best in the league, behind the Packers and Colts.

For a team that won its division because of close games and has built a 12-4 record by means that defied convention, it's the big special teams plays with a direct effect on the scoreboard that are worth some extra attention before the playoffs. The Vikings need only look to the Packers' most recent postseason loss to see how special teams can affect a playoff game.

"I think the extreme plays the other way, like that kickoff return or the blocked punt a couple weeks ago, all comes down to guys doing their jobs and the way we set things up," coach Kevin O'Connell said. "We've got some talented players on that side of the ball, or in that phase of our team, but they still have to go out there and execute as all 11, and make sure that, whether it's kickoff, everybody's staying in their lane and knowing their responsibility: where the intent of the kick is supposed to go, whether it's a left kick, middle kick [or] right kick. Then ultimately, how we have to adjust once that return starts and how to make sure we're soundly defending the play, because that kick return was not [us doing] that by any stretch."

In a year where the Vikings filled their ledger with both exhilarating and maddening special teams plays, the story of their season could ultimately be written by one of those moments.

"We've got to fix some of the catastrophic plays that go the other way for points or contribute to the turnover battle, while still allowing those guys to make plays with the playmakers we have in that phase," O'Connell said.


Dalvin Tomlinson: He recorded the Vikings' lone sack of Rodgers, stripping the ball for a fumble that Jordan Hicks recovered before officials ruled Rodgers had been down by contact. Tomlinson also teamed up with Smith to tackle Aaron Jones for no gain two plays before the sack.

Duke Shelley: The cornerback started instead of Cameron Dantzler again, teaming with Camryn Bynum to stop A.J. Dillon for no gain after Za'Darius Smith forced Dillon wide. Later in the first quarter, Shelley broke up a downfield throw for Christian Watson. It appeared he'd made contact with Watson going downfield, shortly after another play where he'd grabbed the receiver on a deep ball, but Shelley took advantage of the fact referee Carl Cheffers' crew called few flags on defensive backs from either team.


How the Vikings handle Soldier Field's playing surface: Coach Kevin O'Connell said after the game the Vikings "strongly encouraged" players to wear seven-studded cleats at Lambeau Field, though some players opted for their normal cleats to begin the game, believing they'd be fine after testing them in pregame warmups.

"I think everybody was confident in what they were wearing pregame," tight end T.J. Hockenson said. "And then, just having all those guys [on the field] as the game went on, it got a little worse. A few guys switched and tried to figure it out."

Hockenson and wide receiver Justin Jefferson slipped early in the game; Jefferson said afterward he switched to the seven-studded cleats in the middle, and didn't face the same issues once he did. Afterward, though, O'Connell seemed irked it had taken some in-game mishaps to prompt footwear changes for a team that was playing a January game at Lambeau for the second consecutive year.

"There's been a lot of our roster that's played up here before," O'Connell said. "Hopefully it's a learning lesson for all of us, that we don't need to go through some of that early to rectify that problem."

Lambeau Field's playing surface is typically held in higher regard than the one at Soldier Field, where the Vikings will finish the regular season on Sunday. Though it will be their first-ever January game at Soldier Field, they played in Chicago on Dec. 20 a year ago, which means players should have recent institutional knowledge about how to handle the playing surface. It's worth watching if that knowledge, coupled with the Vikings' mishaps at Lambeau on Sunday, helps them avoid the types of slips that affected several key plays in the Packers loss.