Vikings’ Walsh, Locke adjusting to TCF Bank Stadium
As Minnesota adjusts to playing outside full-time for the next two years at the University of Minnesota, kicker Blair Walsh and punter Jeff Locke feel they have a good handle on dealing with the elements.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – A slight breeze was in Blair Walsh’s face as he lined up for a 51-yard field-goal attempt last weekend, the flags on the east goalpost at TCF Bank Stadium were nearly motionless.
Kicking into the closed end of the stadium, Walsh’s kick had plenty of distance but bounced off the left upright. The miss, one of three in two preseason games this season, wasn’t affected by wind patterns or weather conditions.
All of the work Walsh has put in during his two seasons with the Minnesota Vikings has led him to understanding his mechanics well.
"I know when I’m off and when I’m on, and I feel like once the season starts I’ll be on," Walsh said after last weekend’s preseason game against Arizona. "I probably was a little quick, didn’t slow down as much as I’d have liked to. I thought I hit the 51-yarder pretty well. I’ll be fine."
As Minnesota adjusts to playing outside full-time for the next two years at the University of Minnesota, Walsh and punter Jeff Locke feel they have a good handle on dealing with the elements. The two made four trips to TCF Bank Stadium this summer, tracking wind conditions in the open-air stadium and producing wind charts.
Walsh couldn’t have had better conditions in two preseason games, yet he’s missed twice from beyond 50 yards and also missed an extra-point attempt, the equivalent of a 33-yard field goal due to the NFL’s experimental longer extra-point attempts.
"If it was one of those deals where he was shanking the ball, if he was wrapping his foot, he was pushing the ball too far to the right every time, I’d be concerned," special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. "But he’s hitting the ball well. Even in games, he hit the ball well. . . . It’s one of those things he’s just got to continue to focus on his follow-through and the little small attributes that make him such a great kicker compared to the other kickers in this league."
The preseason misses brought on the expected question of dealing with kicking outdoors. The Vikings lost their perfect kicking environment of the Metrodome with the team’s long-time home knocked down to make room for the new, $1 billion facility being built in the same location.
Walsh and Locke, perhaps more than any other Minnesota players, endure the biggest transition in moving to TCF Bank Stadium. Not only is TCF Bank Stadium an outdoor facility with a wide bowl, but the west end of the stadium is open.
"I think almost every kicker would agree that when you have a single open end, it can cause some different things to happen aside from a regular stadium," Locke said. "You can get a lot of whipping affect and some inconsistencies with the wind when you have an open end to the stadium. It always changes things up a little bit."
The Vikings used to play as many as nine regular-season games indoors â the yearly trip to Detroit’s Ford Field the annual ninth game in addition to the eight home games. This year, Minnesota will have three indoor games, and two come in the season’s first three weeks — at St. Louis and New Orleans — when the weather would be the best anyway.
Aside from a Dec. 14 game at Detroit, the Vikings will be playing all of November and December outdoors, including five home games at TCF Bank Stadium and a trip to Chicago, the Windy City.
Walsh and Locke tried to do preliminary planning. They visited TCF Bank Stadium as often as they could during the offseason to kick and punt and created wind charts. Two of the days were particularly windy, allowing for good input.
"We know going a certain direction on that field, you can’t really kick certain ways directionally depending on what the wind’s doing," Locke said. "It will depend on the day but we’ve kind of pointed out two or three flags that we know are going to give us true direction. So we kind of know what the wind’s doing."
There wasn’t much wind for the first two preseason games. The picturesque conditions were mid-80s weather and little wind. Walsh missed wide right from 53 yards in the first game, hit the left upright from 51 yards and missed wide left on the extra-point attempt.
Priefer said Walsh was 47 of 50 in team drills during training camp in Mankato.
"He’s striking the ball well," Preifer said. "He’s hitting the ball well. We’re working on a little bit part of the follow-through. I think really that’s it and we’ll tweak that and I think he’ll be just fine."
Walsh didn’t like the misses, but they added to the information that he and Locke acquired during the summer.
"First couple times are interesting because you’re charting and you’re writing down a lot of stuff," Walsh said. "After that it gets more methodical and each time you go there, you get more and more comfortable with it."
An All-Pro as a rookie, Walsh set records with his 10-of-10 performance from 50 yards and beyond. Last season he dealt with a leg injury and was 2 of 5 from beyond 50 yards. Two misses from the longer distances in the preseason aren’t enough to shake his confidence.
"That’s how I am. I’m a confident kicker," Walsh said. "The way I’ve played in practice and the way I’ve played the last two seasons, I know when I’m off and when I’m on. I’ll be on."