Mike Priefer couldn't help himself. The Minnesota Vikings' special teams coordinator jumped this spring at an opportunity to interrogate one of the key performers of the Chicago Bears' elite special teams in recent seasons, hoping to find some ideas -- be it schematic or motivational -- to help his Vikings close the gap.
So when veteran Zack Bowman signed with the Vikings last spring, Priefer pounced. He pulled Bowman aside immediately and, he told reporters, was "grilling him."
"It was me trying to get information from him not only about the Chicago Bears and what they do and teach, but what made them so successful," Priefer said. "I know they have a great returner and they have a good kicker and a good punter, but the mentality that they take to every Sunday is where I want our guys to get to. That is a great challenge for us. The Bears, Packers and the Lions are all very good special-teams units and I want to see what made them so successful behind the scenes."
Indeed, the Bears finished the 2011 season ranked atop the special-teams rankings maintained by our friends over at Football Outsiders. (FO analyzes how many points above the league average a special-teams group accounts for, including field position gained or lost.) The Packers were No. 8, while the Vikings ranked No. 27.
It's true that most teams don't have an elite dual returner like Devin Hester, along with a secondary returner along the lines of Danieal Manning or Johnny Knox or Eric Weems. And the Bears have maintained veteran credibility at place-kicker with Robbie Gould and at punter with Brad Maynard and Adam Podlesh. But I think we can all agree the Bears' week-to-week swagger from their blockers and coverage units is an important part of their winning identity.
What did Bowman, who is working on all four special-teams groups this summer, tell Priefer?
"Basically," Priefer said, "they believed every time that they returned the ball, punt or kickoff, they had a chance to score. When you have a great returner, that’s the feeling you’re going to get. It makes guys work a little bit harder. They believe in it more. I think we had that on kickoff return a lot with all the long returns we had. We need to establish that on punt returns as well."
One of the hot topics of Vikings training camp will be how much they use Percy Harvin as a kickoff returner. My guess is that coach Leslie Frazier will pick his spots. It's not clear who will take the rest of the kickoffs or handle punts. Rookies Jarius Wright and Josh Robinson, along with veteran cornerback Marcus Sherels, are all possibilities.