Battle in the Bayou: Bush vs. Kluwe

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Not long after Reggie Bush returned a punt 71 yards for a touchdown last Saturday, and a day before Minnesota earned its berth in the NFC Championship Game, Chris Kluwe was already hearing it.

The lowest moment in Kluwe’s career as the Vikings’ punter came last season at the Superdome, when Bush returned two of his punts for touchdowns. Afterwards, coach Brad Childress publicly lambasted him for failing to get the punts out of bounds as assigned.

“I was needling Kluwe on Saturday already,” placekicker Ryan Longwell said. “I saw him return it and it brought back memories, some not so good.”

The Vikings consider Bush one of the primary threats New Orleans will pose Sunday in the NFC Championship Game. But there are two truths we should acknowledge as the game approaches:

When you take a look at the numbers, Bush has been an average punt returner for most of his career.

Both Kluwe and the Vikings’ coverage units have made substantial progress since last year’s debacle.

On the first point, take a look at the chart that accompanies this post. As much of an every-play threat Bush might be, the vast majority of his career punt returns have been harmless. This fact doesn’t minimize the threat, but it perhaps it should reduce the hysteria surrounding this aspect of the matchup.

On the second: Bush appeared to have regained his speed and form in the Saints’ 45-14 romp over Arizona last weekend. Less obvious, however, was the scintillating performance that Kluwe and the Vikings’ punt coverage team produced in a 34-3 victory over Dallas.

Kluwe averaged 41.7 net yards and the Cowboys did not gain a single return yard on five punts, a big reason why their average drive started on the Vikings’ 25-yard line.

Kluwe has spent most of the season working to reduce his distance while improving hang time and direction, and Longwell said: “He’s actually a much better punter than he’s ever been and he’s a better weapon for us going into this game than he was last year.”

Longwell added: “He has a home run leg, just as strong as anybody in the league. And [special teams coordinator Brian Murphy] has asked him to dial it back and hit more hang time, and he’s done that this year. [It’s] a lot tougher to return on that.”

Kluwe, for his part, said he has worked hard to have a short memory.

“That was just one of those things where you have to just put it behind you,” he said. “It’s the NFL. You’re going to have ups. You’re going to have downs. … I mean, he’s a dynamic returner. Obviously, he always has that possibility to make something happen. But we’re just going to go out and cover like we did last week against Dallas, and hopefully try to keep him from breaking anything big.”