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The Vikings need to improve both of their kicking units in 2016. Daniel House breaks down the role Jeff Locke and Blair Walsh's performances could play in the success of the upcoming season.
Updated: July 19th, 2016 10:35pm
Updated: July 19th, 2016 10:35pm
By: Daniel House
By: Daniel House
The Vikings need to improve both of their kicking units in 2016. The mental cloud cast on Blair Walsh and the inconsistency issues of Jeff Locke cannot hinder the team this season. The kicking game must complement the other two phases of the game and perform at a similarly high level. Recently, that hasn't been the case. This is especially clear when you analyze the punting statistics. Locke and Walsh need to find their groove and improve if the Vikings want to take their team to the next level.
Walsh handling the mental voodoo
Entering the 2016 season, the Vikings kicking game is an area of the team that must improve. Blair Walsh made some huge kicks, including game-winning opportunities against Chicago and St. Louis. However, his one critical miss might haunt him for awhile. A 27-yard failed attempt in the playoffs is something that will always stick in the back of his mind. Will Walsh recover from this type of situation? It will all come down to how he mentally handles kicks moving forward.
In 2015, Walsh was a perfect 9-for-9 from 20-29 yards, 13-for-15 from 30-39 yards, 6-for-7 from 40-49 yards, and 6-for-8 from 50+ yards. Overall, he missed five of his 39 total attempts. Walsh was better from long distance than short range. He missed four extra points from the new 32-yard extra point range. Additionally, two of Walsh's total field goal misses came between 30-39 yards out. It is clear his focus should be improving his consistency on kicks from 20 to 39 yards out. In 2015 training camp, Walsh was consistently working on long field goal attempts. This year, he needs to be pushed in practice with more pressure situations on short/intermediate kicks that require more mental toughness. One can try those kicks in practice, but it will need to translate to the playing field when the lights come on. Walsh needs to improve his performance in short/intermediate kicks as he attempts to re-establish consistency in his skill set.
The biggest key will be whether he can handle the mental pressure of recovering from a debilitating missed kick in a playoff game. Nobody will know the answer to this burning question until the season gets underway.
Locke down the punting game
More importantly, the Vikings must improve in the punting category of their special teams unit. Jeff Locke has underachieved in his first three seasons with the team. His net punting average has decreased every year - 2013: 39.2, 2014: 38.7, 2015: 37.8. In 2015, he pinned teams inside the 20-yard line more, but he ranked 30th in net punting average in 2015 (37.8). Additionally, Locke had the worst gross punting average (41.6) in football.
This team heavily relies on the field position battle to win football games. Offensively, the Vikings aren't going to get into a shoot-out with their opponent. They rely on the running game, controlling the clock, and moving the ball systematically. They trust their defense to get off the field and make stops. Without pinning the opposing offense deep, it can put a huge strain on the defense. Jeff Locke hasn't consistently shifted field position for the Vikings.
Many apologists are arguing how kicking outdoors adversely impacted Locke and his punting stats. At TCF Bank Stadium, his gross average was 41 yards, while his opponents notched a 41.6-yard figure. Additionally, Locke had fewer punts inside the 20-yard line than his opponents. If you adjust his stats for indoor games, his average is 46 yards. That figure places him in the middle-of-the-road category among NFL punters. Even with that, he still has to kick outdoors on the road. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer and GM Rick Spielman have noted that Locke had similar stats to his opponents who played at TCF Bank Stadium. This is the case, but his overall average is still far too low to be considered acceptable.
It is very surprising the Vikings didn't bring in some competition to push Locke in training camp and the preseason. With two roster spots still open, it doesn't mean the team won't make a last minute signing before training camp practices get underway. The coaches need to put pressure on Locke and see if they can upgrade their kicking game with another candidate.
Both Walsh and Locke need to mentally prepare for the season and improve their consistency. Special teams and the kicking game complement the other two phases of the game. Without an improvement in this area, the Vikings could lose some close games that may haunt them later in the season. One missed kick is a lost opportunity to add points on the board. Additionally, a poor punt can put a strain on the defense and shift all the momentum towards the opposing offense.
With all of that being said, the kicking game is quietly one of the most important areas the Vikings must improve on their team in 2016.