Pushoff 2010: Harvin vs. Buehler

If you’re into special teams matchups, there will be a fascinating dynamic in play Sunday at the Metrodome.

Minnesota rookie Percy Harvin made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner this season, but he was almost a non-factor during the second half of the season as opponents intentionally kicked away from him via squibs or short, high kicks. Here is how Harvin’s season broke down:

Games 1-8: 30.7-yard average on 28 returns, two touchdowns

Games 9-16: 21.1-yard average on 14 returns, no touchdowns

The Vikings have had eight kickoffs returned by blockers over that stretch, including five by tight end Jeff Dugan. Lately, they’ve been using punt returner Darius Reynaud as an upback to give them a more explosive alternative.

On the other hand, the Cowboys employ kickoff specialist David Buehler, who has one of the strongest legs in the NFL. Buehler led the league with 29 touchbacks during the regular season and had three last week in the Cowboys’ wild-card playoff victory over Philadelphia.

I, for one, will be interested to see if the Cowboys will let Buehler kick deep or if they’ll join previous Vikings opponents and keep the ball away from Harvin. I bet the Vikings would be more than willing to let Harvin return the ball from relatively deep in the end zone.

Speaking to Minnesota reporters this week, special teams coordinator Brian Murphy said Harvin will use the lettering of Vikings logo in the end zone as a “warning track” for returning the ball. But Harvin has also been told to judge whether a deep kick is still returnable based on hang time and trajectory.

“Not all of them are going to be touchbacks,” Murphy said. “We need to take advantage of it when it is a returnable ball.”

Just another nugget to consider with the opening kickoff 27 hours away.