RENTON, Wash. – The Seahawks have punted 40 times this season, and of those only 11 have been returned for all of 15 yards. Vikings punt returner Marcus Sherels, meanwhile, is 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’ offense and defense 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.
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 kick return, a number that includes a 109-yard score.
“They’re amazing,” Carroll said of Minnesota’s special teams play. “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 everyone 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, and that’s a welcome challenge for a Seahawks coverage team that has routinely punished returners for bringing the ball out of the end zone.
“He’ll take them 9 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.”
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 had sat with a hip injury.