Special teams Sunday: Strength vs. strength

Posted Nov 16, 2013

The Minnesota Vikings bring the league leaders in kickoff- and punt-return average to CenturyLink Field on Sunday, where Cordarrelle Patterson and Marcus Sherels will run into the Seahawks’ stingy coverage units.

The Seahawks’ special teams have been just that during the best start in franchise history.

Steven Hauschka leads the NFL in scoring with 93 points; has missed only one of a combined 50 kicks on field goals and PATs – a 48-yard field goal attempt that was blocked; and also is tied for fifth in the league with 34 touchbacks on his kickoffs. The punt coverage unit has allowed 15 return yards, fewest in the league by 56 yards – and 10 came on one return. Golden Tate ranks fifth in the league with a 13.7-yard average returning punts. Jermaine Kearse has a 40-yard return among his limited opportunities on kickoff returns (12). Jon Ryan has tweaked his approach, sacrificing some distance on punts (43.7-yard average, 40.2 nets) for hang time and placement.

Put everything coordinator Brian Schneider’s units have done during the team’s 9-1 start and the Seahawks’ special teams rank second in the NFL entering Sunday’s pre-bye week matchup with the Minnesota Vikings.

Just how good are they? Sunday’s game at CenturyLink Field will be the ultimate containment test, because the Vikings’ return game features rookie Cordarrelle Patterson, who leads the NFL with a 35.2-yard average on kickoff returns and has scoring returns of 109 and 105 yards; and Marcus Sherels, who leads the league with a 16.3-yard average returning punts, including an 86-yarder for a score.

“They’re amazing,” coach Pete Carroll said. “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 just a great matchup and we’ll find out where stack up against the best guys in the league.”

Patterson and Sherels bring just what you’re looking for in a return tandem, which presents a dual problem even when your coverage units are as the good as the Seahawks.

“Patterson is a no-hesitation, foot-on-the-ground returner. He’s very strong. Has good vision,” Schneider said. “Sherels is very shifty. He’s very fast. And he’s very slippery. So he makes a lot of guys miss just by him being so slippery.

“They’re both really good. They’re leading the league for a reason.”  

So, where to start in trying to stop these guys.

“It’s like everything else, you ramp up your preparation, you just keep relying on the things that you’ve done and just go out there and cover,” Schneider said.

That’s where Jeremy Lane and Bryon Maxwell come in as the gunners on the punt coverage unit. Lane shares the team lead with seven coverage tackles – all solo – despite missing two games. Maxwell has three tackles and a fumble recovery.

“Sherels makes smart decisions,” Lane said. “When he doesn’t think he’s got it, he fair catches it. And when he has a lot of room, he takes off. But I love the challenge. I can’t wait for Sunday.”

Said Maxwell: “He’s a very elusive guy. So everybody has to stay at home, stay in their lanes and we’ve just got to play ball. Every week is a challenge, so he’s a challenge and we just have to handle him.”

On kickoffs, containing Patterson will start with Heath Farwell, who also has seven coverage tackles and a forced fumble; and Chris Maragos, who has six coverage tackles and a fumble recovery.

“He’s a big, strong guy,” Maragos said the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Patterson. “He’s extremely confident with the ball in his hands. He trusts his blocks. When he hits the hole, he hits it. And he breaks a lot of tackles. He’s tough to takedown.

“So you’ve got to gang tackle. You can’t just have one guy coming down ready to tackle. You’ve got to have the team unit covering him, tackling him and we’ve really got to make sure that we’re really on point with our lane integrity and make sure we’re squeezing him down and restricting his lanes.”

Offered Farwell: “Patterson’s got a lot of speed. He’s very, very fast, and he can break tackles. He’s a very good returner. But they do a great job blocking for him. You see his returns and there are some big holes in there.”

That’s why the focus for the Seahawks’ special teams this week will be the whole of their impressive parts.