Notebook: Vikings' punt unit is excelling, but next up is Devin Hester
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Through eight games and 36 punts, the Minnesota Vikings have allowed an NFL-low 45 return yards, and punter Chris Kluwe ranks second with a 42.2 net average.
How remarkable are those numbers?
Consider that last season, the Vikings allowed 260 return yards, and Kluwe's net average was 37.8 -- both around the middle of the pack -- with 24 punts downed inside the 20-yard line. This season, they've already had 18, putting Kluwe on pace to better the net average, opponent return average and total inside-20 boots of the NFC punters who have made the Pro Bowl the past five years.
That comparison is skewed somewhat, of course, by the inevitable drop in punting numbers as the weather turns. And the Vikings have yet to face arguably the best return man on their schedule -- Chicago's Devin Hester, who enters Sunday's matchup at Soldier Field averaging 15.9 yards on 18 punt returns, including 62- and 89-yard bursts for touchdowns.
"That's a big part of the game plan, is making sure we account for Hester," Kluwe said. "Hopefully, we've got the tools in place and our guys just keep doing a great job of running down, covering. I'll make sure I get them enough hang time, and hopefully, we'll keep him from doing anything."
Kluwe and the Vikings have seen first-hand how Hester can affect a game. He had a 45-yard touchdown return on Dec. 3, 2006, and an 89-yarder on Oct. 14, 2007, in victories over the Vikings.
With an increased emphasis on playing receiver, Hester didn't score on a return in 2008 or '09 before finding the end zone Sept. 27 against Green Bay, then again on Oct. 17 against Seattle -- both at Soldier Field, where gusting winds can wreak havoc on opposing specialists.
As of Thursday afternoon, weather forecasts called for overcast skies and temperatures in the upper 40s for the noon kickoff. So far, Kluwe hasn't been hampered by the elements -- he netted 40.4 in the rain on Oct. 11 against the New York Jets and had his high gross game 13 nights later at Green Bay, where he averaged 50 yards a punt.
Big Pat's future
Veteran nose tackle Pat Williams said in January there was a 50-50 chance he'd retire. He ended up returning for a 14th NFL season, and at its midpoint, Williams said on Thursday retirement isn't on his mind.
"I kind of stressed out a little bit," Williams said. "So, that's all mind-wise, put my mind back right. I'm back having fun."
Williams' remarks have to be taken with a grain of salt -- no matter the issue, he generally tells reporters he's not concerned about it.
One factor in Williams' decision could be the outcome of the long-running StarCaps case, which took another turn this week when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to accept an appeal of the decision to allow certain claims to continue in state court.
Four-game suspensions for Kevin Williams and teammate Pat Williams now have been on hold for more than two years. Asked if it's unfair the NFL continues to pursue the case, Williams said, "The whole world unfair sometimes, so it don't bother me. I ain't going to lose no sleep at night thinking about that case."
Planning for Peppers
For a second straight day, left tackle Bryant McKinnie wasn't available to talk about Sunday's matchup with Bears end Julius Peppers, whose pass rush last season at Carolina contributed to MCKinnie's second-half benching.
Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, however, made clear Peppers has been on the Vikings' minds this week.
"That's a guy that definitely has to get game-planned, Peppers," Shiancoe said. "I mean, just hearing his name you already know the type of accomplishments, the type of terror he brings to offenses. So, he has to be contained.
"You can't have no wild lion running around the neighborhood, you know? You've got to go out there and get out the tranquilizers. We've got to tranquilize his ass."
• Shiancoe said he'd be in favor of more liberally deploying the no-huddle offense the Vikings used to dissect the Arizona Cardinals late in Sunday's 27-24 comeback win at the Metrodome. "They were sucking wind," Shiancoe said. "Especially with bigger teams like that. Like the Cardinals, they have big old stout guys, especially their safeties are huge, their safeties are about my size. So, it seemed like to me that they got a little tired out there. And it showed."
• DE Jared Allen chalked up Sunday's sack surge to forcing Arizona's offense to become more one-dimensional. The Cardinals' last seven plays were passes -- a span in which the Vikings got four of their six sacks, doubling their season total to 12. "We were long overdue," said Allen, who was credited with 2½ sacks. "Sometimes, it comes down to plain missing. We missed some sacks this year. We've just got to get them on the ground."
• Murphy said the problem that allowed LaRod Stephens-Howling's 96-yard kick-return touchdown on Sunday was the Vikings "just didn't do a very good job of leveraging the football. I think if you watch the tape, you saw the middle of the field was wide open. Whether guys didn't know how far the ball was drifting to the middle to the field, it really didn't drift that far, but we didn't do a very good job of adjusting to it on the run. I'd like to tell you it was something else. It was guys that didn't adjust and we didn't adjust quickly enough."
• The Detroit Lions and New England Patriots have been forced to use position players for place-kicks in recent weeks, but the Vikings have a more traditional backup plan. According to Murphy, Kluwe would handle place-kicking duties and backup QB Tarvaris Jackson would hold.