The Buccaneers and Vikings will take the national stage Thursday night when they square off in prime time on the NFL Network. That’s good news for Tampa Bay and Minnesota fans, but it should also be entertaining for anyone who appreciates big-play passing (Vincent Jackson leads the NFL in yards per catch) or power running (Adrian Peterson is third in the NFL in rushing yards). Each team also has a hard-hitting rookie safety (Mark Barron and Harrison Smith), for those who appreciate that, and young passers (Josh Freeman and Christian Ponder) who are potentially in breakout seasons.
So there will be a little something for everyone Thursday night…unless you happen to be a huge fan of kickoff returns.
On one hand, the Vikings have one of the most dangerous return men in the league in Percy Harvin, who has one kickoff return touchdown already this year and has had two more erased by penalties. On the other hand, the Buccaneers have Michael Koenen.
Thursday’s game will actually feature the two best kickers in the NFL in terms of producing touchbacks on kickoffs. Koenen has 24 touchbacks in 32 attempts, a 75% rate that ranks first in the league. Next on the list is the Vikings’ rookie, Blair Walsh, at 71.1% (27 of 38). About the only difference in their games is that Walsh is the Vikings’ placekicker while Koenen pulls double duty as the Bucs’ punter.
Over the last two weeks, the Bucs’ kickoff coverage unit has basically engaged in a series of 65-yard wind sprints, because Koenen has been red-hot. He has been, in fact, perfect, booting 12 touchbacks in 12 kickoffs against the Chiefs and Saints. Dating back to the Week Four game against Washington, Koenen is on a roll of 15 straight kickoffs that have been downed in the end zone (actually, truth be told, a good many of them have sailed completely out of the back of the end zone). The last time a return man decided to bring one out against the Bucs, it was Washington’s Niles Paul to start the second half and he was tackled at the 11.
All the touchbacks produce a lot of good news for the Buccaneers. They have allowed the fewest kickoff returns in the NFL this season, at 190. If you give Percy Harvin three or four cracks at running one out, he might produce 190 yards in one game. Since most opposing drives after Buc kickoffs are starting at the 20, Tampa Bay opponents have an average kickoff drive start of the 20.8. That’s the eighth-best mark in the league. And if opponents are going to try to return a Koenen kickoff, they’re not going to get many opportunities to start outside the end zone. Of all his kicks, 93.9% have sailed into or beyond the end zone, the third-best mark in the league.