With Minnesota’s offense sputtering in the first half as it posted just 60 net yards against the Cowboys on the way to a 14-7 deficit, Harvin swung the momentum back on the first play of the second half when he took the opening kickoff down the middle of the field for a 95-yard touchdown to tie the game in an eventual 24-21 win for the Vikings (2-3).
It was a familiar feeling for a Green Bay team that saw the then-rookie Harvin post a pair of impactful returns at Lambeau Field last season in Minnesota’s 38-26 win in Week 8.
“I think he’s a dynamic returner,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “We saw that from the day he showed up in Minnesota. Last year the first time we played them, we won the battle in terms of defending Percy, and then he came out here in our stadium and hit us for some serious yardage. We have to keep him under wraps.
“I see Percy being really strong. He does a great job of catching the ball and getting vertical using his speed, but then he’s got some power as he showed against Dallas to step through an arm tackle.”
Harvin is one of only two players in the league with three kickoff returns for touchdowns since 2009, joining Cleveland’s Joshua Cribbs, and the three scores already have set a Vikings career franchise record. Harvin is averaging 27.2 yards per return this season, which has helped Minnesota to a No. 3 ranking in the league in average starting field position (31.9) after kickoffs, and he also leads the team in every receiving category with 20 receptions for 224 yards (11.2 avg.) and three touchdowns.
In the Week 4 meeting between the teams last season in Minnesota, the Packers’ coverage units held Harvin to a career-low (min. three attempts) 17.3-yard average on three kickoff returns, with his longest one going for just 19 yards.
But that changed less than a month later when the teams squared off in Green Bay. After the Packers got on the board 10 minutes into the game on a 37-yard Mason Crosby field goal, Harvin fielded Crosby’s kickoff at the 9-yard line and found a seam on his way to a 77-yard gain to the Green Bay 14. The short field led to a 1-yard touchdown run from running back Adrian Peterson to put Minnesota up 7-3.
After Green Bay kept Harvin in check on his next two returns, allowing him just an 18.0-yard average, he got loose again at a critical juncture. The Packers had trimmed Minnesota’s 21-point lead to just four late in the third quarter, but Harvin took a Crosby kickoff all the way across the field and down the right sideline for a 48-yard pickup to the Packers’ 38-yard line. Quarterback Brett Favre connected with tight end Jeff Dugan seven plays later on a 2-yard touchdown pass to push the Vikings’ lead up to 11 in a game they eventually won, 38-26.
“He’s good at that first cut,” Crosby said of Harvin, who was added to Minnesota’s injury report on Thursday due to a hamstring injury. “How we’re kind of looking at him is he runs like a running back. He’ll see that hole and he’ll cut up field and kind of try to blow through holes. He is very explosive, so you want to try to take some shots and make him change directions and just get to his legs. He runs hard and that is dangerous if you give him any space.”
The Packers took a couple of different approaches with Harvin last season, including some directional kicks near the pylon in the first meeting that worked well, and a line-drive squib kick at Lambeau on one occasion.
“You can’t eliminate him getting hands on the ball unless you onside kick the ball, so we can’t do that because of field position,” Slocum said. “I think it’s important that you try to disrupt the timing and rhythm of the return set-up process, and that’s something from a competitive standpoint, I can’t tell you exactly what we’ll do, but we’ll have a good plan going in.
“Kickoff returns work well when the spacing is correct. There are a number of ways from a defensive standpoint to affect that, and I think if you kick the ball in the middle of the field to Percy Harvin and let him have a bunch of space to run the ball, he can go left, right or in the middle, and you are fighting uphill.”
This season the Packers’ production in kickoff coverage have been similar to last season, allowing opponents an average starting field position of 28.7 after kickoffs compared to 28.9 in 2009. One area of improvement has been eliminating the explosive gain, with a 44-yarder the longest given up compared to four returns of 50-plus yards allowed in ’09.
“I think we are doing a good job of flying down there and taking shots,” Crosby said. “Guys are going and trying to get legs and make guys change direction. We’ve got more speed on our coverage team than we have had in the past.
“I just have to hit the ball well with whatever we decide to do, and that lies on me. Wherever the ball goes we have to go cover it. It’s a function of all 11 of us going down there and making sure he doesn’t get out. The goal is always to keep him hemmed up inside the 30 every time we kick off.”
Of the Vikings’ 10 offensive touchdowns this season, only two have come on drives of 70 yards or longer, and one of those featured an 80-yard touchdown run from Peterson on the first play of the possession. In a series that has been decided by seven points or less in 13 of the last 15 regular-season meetings, not allowing an explosive return from Harvin that provides a short field for Minnesota’s offense could prove critical.
“He cannot affect this game,” Crosby said. “There are a lot of big-play opportunities for both teams and it is a good battle always with these two teams. As far as our coverage unit is concerned, we have to eliminate him as a potential big-play threat. That is how we are looking at it. Just do our job there so that part of the game doesn’t have any bearing on what the end result is.
“This is going to be a big game and could be a defining time for our coverage team just to go down there and stop a good returner.”
Additional coverage – Oct. 21