MINNEAPOLIS -- Before Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings hadn't blocked a punt since New Year's Day 2006, in Mike Tice's final game as head coach. That was three head coaches and two special teams coordinators ago, and it certainly hadn't happened in Mike Priefer's time with the Vikings.
But headed into Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers, Priefer felt the conditions were ripe for that to change.
He'd seen some things in the Panthers' punt protection schemes that made him believe the Vikings had a chance to get to punter Brad Nortman, and when time came for the Panthers' second punt of the day, it didn't even take a terribly aggressive punt block call for Priefer to be proven right.
The Vikings went with a rush-return call that sent three players -- wide receiver Adam Thielen, linebacker Jasper Brinkley and safety Andrew Sendejo -- up the middle of the Panthers' formation while the rest of the Vikings prepared for a Marcus Sherels return. The idea was to slip pressure past long snapper J.J. Jansen and force personal protector Thomas DeCoud to make a quick decision. When Thielen came clean through the line to Nortman, he got so close to the punter he had to block the ball with his hands to keep it from hitting him in the face.
"There was a return off of it; it wasn't like we knew we were going to block it," Thielen said. "The coaches did a great job of putting us in the right position, and really, I don't have to do much. I just kind of do my job and make a block."
Thielen corralled the loose ball, slipped two tacklers and raced into the end zone for a 30-yard score that would stand as the longest punt block return TD in Vikings' history for about a half-hour. Two possessions later, the Vikings kept their base defense on the field for a fourth-and-5 from midfield to guard against a fake punt, but Priefer put Panthers tight end Ed Dickson in a similar bind to DeCoud's. He could block defensive end Brian Robison or Brinkley as both swung around the right end of the Panthers' line, and when Dickson barely chipped Brinkley on his way to Robison, the linebacker swatted down Nortman's punt to set up a 43-yard Everson Griffen score.
It was a stunning turn of events in the first half of the Vikings' 31-13 win on Sunday, one that helped the team make history on its way to a big halftime lead. The Vikings became the first team since the Detroit Lions in 1975 to return two punts for touchdowns in one half, and just the fourth since the AFL-NFL merger to score two punt block TDs in the same game.
The design of both plays was similar, in some senses, to the double-A gap blitz the Vikings often use on defense, which forces blockers to make quick decisions and uses confusion to create opportunities for sacks. Priefer talked again on Sunday about how he has more freedom to be aggressive under coach Mike Zimmer than he's had under some head coaches, though the Vikings' charges on Sunday were confined to one area of the Panthers' protection scheme.
Two of them worked, and they created opportunities for a rare achievement.
"We have a lot of core players here that believe special teams is important," Priefer said. "We've got a head coach that supports us with meeting time, walk-through time and practice time, and he allows me to make those calls. In years past, I've coached with different head coaches that don't want to be quite as aggressive. We were aggressive on punt team [on Nov. 16 against Chicago] with the fake punt; we were aggressive on punt rushes. That really helps us do some things."