When Dan Bailey won the kicking job in 2011, almost by default, as a rookie, the Cowboys kept David Buehler as a kickoff specialist. But Buehler went on injured reserve that season with a hip injury, and Bailey inherited the kickoff job to go along with his place-kicking duties.
He had 24 touchbacks on 67 kickoffs in 2011 and 30 on 79 in 2012. This season, he is tied for second in the NFL with 34 on 48 kickoffs -- 66.5 percent.
"It was just a big focus for me in the off-season," Bailey said. "I wanted to get a little bit stronger, and I thought as far as my game goes that was the area I could improve the most. I feel like I can always improve all areas. I just felt like that needed a little more attention. So far this year I feel good on kickoffs. I feel like I’ve been hitting the ball well. So it seems to kind of carry over and pay off some of the stuff I did in the off-season."
The Cowboys rank second in average drive start on kickoffs, with opponents' averaging the 20.0-yard line following a Cowboys' kickoff. They will need every bit of that Sunday when they get their toughest test of the season.
The Vikings rank first in the NFL in average drive start after a kickoff with a 26.1-yard average. Rookie returner Cordarrelle Patterson ranks first in the NFL with a 39.1-yard average on 18 returns this season, and he has returned two for touchdowns.
"There’s no question he’s had a good year," Bailey said. "He has two returns for touchdowns. But in this league every return man is good. Some are slightly better than others, but everybody is pretty much capable of having that home-run play. We prepare for him just like we prepare for anybody else. I wouldn’t say we give him any special attention. We’re going to do our best to execute our game plan as best we can, and I’m sure they’re going to do the same thing. I think it’ll be a good challenge."
Patterson has returns of 105 and a record 109 yards this season. The Cowboys insist they will be prepared for Patterson to bring it out of the end zone even if Bailey kicks it deep in the end zone.
"Anytime you play a good kickoff returner, everybody’s got to be on their assignments," Cowboys linebacker Kyle Bosworth said. "You can’t one guy fall out of the link in the armor. You definitely have to approach it the same every week, because everybody in the league is going to be a good returner. It just so happens this one has had a couple of touchdowns from deep in there. So we just have to know that he’s going to take out anything. Just be ready every single kick whether it be kickoff or whatever. Just be ready and know he’s going to take it out. Everybody’s got to be on their assignments."
-- Charean Williams