RENTON — The Seahawks have punted 40 times this season, and of those, just 11 have been returned for all of 15 yards. Vikings punt returner Marcus Sherels, meanwhile, is averaging — averaging! — 16.3 yards per punt return.
Both Sherels’ average and Seattle’s ability to hold opponents to 1.4 yards per punt return are by far and away the best in the league, and those two disparate stats provide a dramatic illustration of what could be the deciding factor in Sunday’s game.
While plenty of other players on both teams’ offenses and defenses will get the headlines this weekend, what could well make the difference is which team performs better on special teams.
Since Pete Carroll took over in Seattle, the special teams unit led by coach Brian Schneider has been a huge reason for the Seahawks’ success. That’s the case again this year, with Seattle excelling on both punt and kick coverage, and with Golden Tate emerging as one of the game’s most dangerous punt returners.
The website FootballOutsiders.com ranks Seattle’s special teams play as the second best in the league, and the Seahawks will be tested Sunday by the Vikings, who rank seventh, buoyed by two of the best return units in football.
In addition to Sherels being the league’s top punt returner, rookie Cordarrelle Patterson leads the NFL with an average of 35.2 yards per kickoff return, a number that includes a 109-yard score.
“They’re amazing,” Carroll said of Minnesota’s special teams. “They’re leading the league in kickoff returns and punt returns as individual players. Thirty-five yards is the average for Cordarrelle Patterson which is extraordinary, and he is a fantastic returner.
“I’ve watched every one that he’s had, and he attacks and flies up in there, he’s hard to get on the ground, and he’s a big guy with great speed. Marcus Sherels is just really fast, really fast, and he’s made it obviously now that he’s a big deal.
“We have a really good kickoff coverage unit, we have a really good punt coverage unit, we’re extremely proud of the way our guys work, and we take a lot of pride in doing that right. It’s a great matchup, it just is a great matchup and we’ll find out where we stack up against the best guys in the league.”
With the NFL moving kickoffs to the 35-yard line, the league has seen a lot more touchbacks in the past two seasons, but Patterson isn’t much for taking a knee if there’s any chance for a return. That’s a welcome challenge for a Seahawks coverage team that has routinely punished returners for bringing the ball out of the end zone this season.
“He’ll take them nine yards deep, and we expect him to come out every time,” said linebacker Heath Farwell, Seattle’s special teams captain. “It’s a good challenge. Their special teams are one of the best in the league; it’s a good opportunity for us. We look forward to it. It’s starting to get cold and that’s when it’s a little harder for the kickers to keep kicking them out of the end zone, so the more opportunities to go down and cover kicks, that’s what we love doing.”
On punt coverage, the Seahawks have leaned heavily on both the play of punter Jon Ryan, and also the ability of gunner Jeremy Lane to continually beat his blockers and be the first player to the returner, giving him chances to make a tackle or force the returner to call for a fair catch. Lane was held out of practice with a thigh injury Thursday, so his availability could be in doubt, but even if he can’t go, the Seahawks will still go into the game confident their special teams prowess can match that of the Vikings.
“It’s a great challenge for us,” said fullback Michael Robinson, another special teams standout. “Their returners, both of them, Patterson and Sherels, those guys can play, man. We’re going to have to be on our games. We’re just going to go run down there and try to hit. It’s good on good, that’s what you like. You want the best.”
Percy Harvin was a full participant in Thursday’s practice, an encouraging sign for his chances of playing Sunday.
Several key players who sat out or were limited Wednesday practiced fully a day later, including cornerback Richard Sherman, who was a surprise on the injury report Wednesday, sitting out with a hip injury. Sherman joked that he decided he needed a day off after seeing that Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning had been held out Wednesday with an ankle injury.
“You know I saw Peyton got a day off and I was like, ‘Man, where’s my day off?’” Sherman said. “So I was like, let’s come up with something so I can rest, too. Just messing. I’m good, I’ll be out there today. Just needed some rest.”
Cornerback Brandon Browner (groin), defensive tackle Tony McDaniel (hamstring) and cornerback Jeremy Lane (thigh) did not practice.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.