Metrodome finale signals change for Vikings' specialists Walsh, Locke
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. - Minnesota Vikings rookie punter Jeff Locke is used to working in cold weather conditions about once a year, which dates back to his college days at the University of California-Los Angeles.
That'll change next season as the Vikings are set to play two seasons at the University of Minnesota's new, but outdoor TCF Bank Stadium beginning in 2014. Sunday's tilt against the Detroit Lions will be the Vikings' last game in the Metrodome and both Locke and kicker Blair Walsh's last indoor home game before the new stadium is set to open for the 2016 season.
"After this last game we'll definitely meet and talk about things to focus on in the offseason," Locke said. "There are some technique things you have to take into account when dealing with a lot of wind all the time. You don't have the ideal scenario of the indoor stadium."
"Funny thing is I've actually kicked in snow a couple times: at Washington State, at Utah and Washington D.C. - It was like one game a year I was in the cold and the snow."
Locke filled his quota on Dec. 8 at Baltimore as he and Walsh played through a snowstorm that cut visibility in the first quarter and left a slippery surface for the remainder of the game. Locke punted a career-high nine times as Walsh cleared both of his field goal attempts from 39 and 40 yards, respectively.
"[Locke has had a good, solid rookie year for a young punter," Priefer said. "His net would be over 40, almost 41 [yards] if it weren't for the one return against Green Bay."
Packers cornerback Micah Hyde returned a punt 93 yards for a score in an Oct. 27 win over the Vikings - which was enough to earn him the starting kick returner job a week later. Even though Priefer claims Locke's net average would be up around 41 - which only six NFL punters currently hold - the Vikings' special teams units have had their handful of mistakes this season.
The most recent gaffe came in the snowy loss at the Ravens, in which return man Jacoby Jones took a kickoff back 77 yards for one of the five late-game touchdowns.
"Throughout the whole year I think the one thing we really we need to focus on is our kickoff coverage. We didn't do it as well as we did a year ago," Priefer said. "Kick return has been good, punt return has been good. Punt has been good for the most part. I'm concerned about kickoff coverage and what we need to do to get better."
Added stress will be placed on the Vikings' kickoff coverage units in the years to come as the wind, snow and rain from outdoor home games at TCF Bank Stadium can have an effect on the amount of Walsh touchbacks.
After his Pro Bowl rookie season in which Walsh converted a perfect 10-for-10 from 50-plus yards, he's cleared just 26 of his 30 attempts - and only two of his four misses have come in outdoor stadiums.
Walsh is 13-for-15 in outdoor games with his season-long, 54-yard field goal coming in the Sept. 29 win in London at the open-roof Wembley Stadium.
"[Playing outdoors] has definitely been a thought," Walsh said. "Had a couple bad weather games, which I think will help us prepare for next year. We have to change our in-season preparation when it comes to kicking inside next year. We'll probably be venturing outside more on the practice field, trying to get a better idea of what's going on."
Priefer sent Locke to the Metrodome on Thursday for his final practice alone in the 64,111-seat stadium.
"Only had a year with it, loved it," Locke said. "Love that place, man. Ball flies well there, conditions are good. It's surreal punting by yourself there."