Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen celebrates his punt block returned for touchdown with fans during the second quarter against the Carolina Panthers.
Brace Hemmelgarn/Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport
MINNEAPOLIS — Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen was on the sideline Sunday when reserve wide receiver Adam Thielen broke through the Carolina Panthers’ offensive line with a clear path to the punter.
What Thielen did next — becoming the first Minnesota Vikings’ player to do so since 1986 — was enough to send the excitable Griffen into a frenzy.
"Oh my gosh, it was unbelievable," Griffen said. "He blocked the kick, he picked up the kick and he scored, so he got like 10 points in one play. That’s awesome for him. I was so happy for him. I was cussing on the sideline. We play as a team. We play hard. We fight. We never give up."
Little did Griffen know then he would nearly replicate Thielen’s feat.
Thielen returned his own block of a punt for a touchdown in the first quarter, and later, Griffen would scoop up the ball following Jasper Brinkley’s blocked punt and return it for another special teams touchdown in Minnesota’s 31-13 win against Carolina.
Vikings’ special teams coordinator Mike Priefer finally has a head coach willing to be aggressive in special teams. Two weeks after a fake punt led to a touchdown, Minnesota’s special teams accounted for the biggest plays of the day again.
"In years past, I’ve coached with different head coaches that don’t want to be quite as aggressive," Priefer said. "We were aggressive on the punt team with a fake punt. We’re aggressive on punt rushes. So, that really helps us cut it loose a little bit so we can get after it."
In getting after Panthers punter Brad Nortman, the Vikings became the fifth team since 1940 to return two blocked punts for touchdowns in a game and the first since the Kansas City Chiefs in 1990, according to STATS.
Thielen’s block was the first by Minnesota since 2006 and the first returned for a touchdown for the Vikings since 1986, which spanned a league-high 453 games. The two special teams touchdowns marked the fourth time in franchise history the feat had been accomplished and only the second time in team history that Minnesota has had two punts blocked for touchdowns in a season.
"He’s so diligent in everything," Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer said of Priefer. "He talked this week — and he’s pretty energetic anyway — but he talked this week about the possibility of blocking a punt. Now, almost every week, he does. But he felt, I think, extra positive this week that it might happen. That was great. I didn’t expect it."
Priefer, in a way, did expect it, at least one of them. Priefer said he thought he saw something the Vikings could exploit on Thielen’s block.
Thielen and reserve safety Andrew Sendejo pressured from the inside above the snapper. Both players came free and the Carolina blocking back took Sendejo, leaving Thielen all alone.
"That was kind of the thing with coach Priefer this week," Thielen said. "He knew that somebody was going to come free. But he wasn’t sure who and he just said, ‘Lay out and try to get one.’"
Thielen got in so quick and laid out so far he almost blocked the punt with his midsection. He said he moved his hands down at the last minute to block the punt and keep the ball from hitting him in the face. Thielen was on the ground and the ball stopped right by him. He had the wherewithal to pick it up and run for the score to give Minnesota a 14-0.
Scoop and score was the phrase used by Thielen and Griffen. In the seventh-coldest home game in team history, the Vikings went with two scoops.
While Thielen’s block was the work of special teams unit, Brinkley was the one who pushed for the play leading to his block.
Priefer said Brinkley had been calling for the play the last several weeks. Minnesota was in a sort of base defense to account for the possibility of a fake punt and Brinkley rushed straight up the middle.
"We thought Jasper might have a chance to get through there as long as he used the speed he’s been using in practice," Priefer said. "If you believe you have a chance to block one, even if they block you or they’re trying to block you, if you use great technique and speed off the ball like he used, you got a chance every time."
Brinkley, who said it was the first blocked punt he’s had since high school even though he was on punt block teams in college, said his rush was aided by defensive end Brian Robison also pushing forward.
"I just knew I was going to have the opportunity to beat him with an up-and-under," Brinkley said. "Brian was on the outside of me and Brian is a respected pass rusher in this game, so I’m sure they looked at him before me. Just having that, I knew I was going to have a chance."
Griffen, who added two sacks on defense and was on the field in the base defense look, scooped and scored.
Griffen’s 43-yard recovery and return broke the team record for longest blocked punt return, set less than 13 minutes earlier by Thielen, whose return went for 30 yards.
"I got a little bit of wheels," Griffen joked.
And Thielen showed him just a few minutes earlier what to do with a blocked punt.