See more of the story

Josh Metellus was named Vikings special teams player of the year in 2020. Of course, that alone isn't saying a whole lot.

"We struggled some, yeah," Metellus said.

Yes. Yes, they did.

So much so that coach Mike Zimmer said a grumpy adios to special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf after just two seasons.

Count Metellus among those who didn't object to Zimmer's decision.

"We had a lot of stuff gameplan-wise where guys were thinking too much about what to do [rather] than just playing and making plays," Metellus said. "[Maalouf] was just making us play a little too slow, I think."


"Just some things," Metellus said. "Like, OK, knowing that if [the opponent] kicks this way, we do this and this and that and that. I felt as a rookie, it was a lot of stuff instead of just going out there and playing."

Don't worry, Josh. Rookies weren't the only ones feeling that way in 2020.

Zimmer felt the same way in his 27th NFL season. So this offseason he promoted Ryan Ficken, his assistant special teams coordinator the past eight years.

A couple of days after Metellus said Maalouf's schemes slowed players down, Zimmer was asked what he likes most about the changes Ficken has made.

"I think the biggest thing is we've kind of simplified a lot of things," Zimmer said. "Trying to make it a little bit more physical and maybe not so much thinking. Just go play football.

"That's really what I'm trying to stress to all the coaches right now. It doesn't matter about the scheme. It matters about letting these guys play and find out what they can do. When they're thinking, they're going to play slower."

Metellus, a 5-11, 207-pound safety and a sixth-round pick out of Michigan, played a team-high 261 special teams snaps in 2020. He also led the Vikings with eight special teams tackles.

"The key to special teams is you just got to want to do it," he said. "I want to play against the best, and special teams is a way for me to do that.

"Knowing an Adam Thielen and his story, how he had to work his way up through special teams as an undrafted guy, that's my big motivations."

Thielen was asked about being a special teams role model. The 30-year-old smiled and told a story about a talk he gave in the special teams meeting room recently.

"I felt something on my heart that I was thinking about," he said. "A lot of them, honestly, before I talked to the group didn't even really know that I played special teams. But I've been in their shoes."

Those Purple shoes were tiny in 2020.

Kicker Dan Bailey missed 10 kicks in the final five games. Long snapper Austin Cutting was cut after nine games. Against the Lions in Week 9, the Vikings gave up two blocked punts. Against the Bears a week later, they gave up a 104-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to Cordarrelle Patterson.

The Vikings also ranked last in the league in punt return average (4.3), punts inside the 20 (11), field goal percentage (68.1) and opponents' average starting point on kickoff returns (27.2). Overall, they ranked 31st in longtime NFL reporter Rick Gosselin's highly respected special teams rankings.

Metellus hopes to help change that as a special teams leader this season. He plays on every special team.

In the preseason opener, a 33-6 loss to Denver, he "played fast" on the first kickoff coverage. So fast that he made the tackle at the Denver 15-yard line.

Overall, the special teams were below average in the opener. In Saturday's 12-10 loss to the Colts, they were much better but still inconsistent.

They gave up a 31-yard return on the opening kickoff. They had two two-yard punt returns. They had a punt net just 29 yards. They failed to reach the 25-yard line on a kickoff return. Greg Joseph missed a 51-yard field goal.

But …

They also had a 41-yard kickoff return by rookie Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Joseph's successful 49-yard field goal, and a towering 47-yard punt that ended with rookie linebacker Chazz Surratt blowing up returner Isaiah Rodgers for no gain. And, yes, Surratt was playing fast. Very fast.

"That's how Ryan wants guys playing," said Metellus, who had two more special teams tackles on punt returns of 1 and 4 yards. "Go all out and play as hard as you can. Make a mistake, but make it at full speed. That's what Zim and him both say. A lot."