IRVING, Texas – Two of the best in the league at returning kicks will face off this weekend at AT&T Stadium.
The Cowboys and Vikings are the top two teams in the league in kickoff return average and are in the top three in punt return average, thanks in large part to returners Dwayne Harris and Cordarrelle Patterson.
"I think the return game will be a big part of this game," said Vikings coach Leslie Frazier. "Dwayne's had a very good season up to this point. He's had some very good returns. Cordarrelle obviously has done a great job for us. He was named Special Teams Player of the Week today. I would expect the return game to have a big impact on the game."
Patterson's the reigning NFC Special Teams Player of the Week. Harris has earned the honor two times this season, once for his return skills and once for his coverage skills.
Harris is second in the league averaging 35.7 yards per kick return on 13 returns. He's also third in the league with 15.8 yards per punt return and a touchdown on 15 returns. Patterson only returns kicks, but he's been the best in the league at it this season, averaging 39.1 yards per return on 18 returns with two touchdowns.
"Obviously, you know what he's done," Harris said. "And obviously you know what I've done. It's going to be fun. It's going to be one of those games that's going to be a battle of the returners and special teams. You've got to go down and cover them, and they've got to go down and cover us. It's going to be fun."
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said Dan Bailey's touchbacks will be critical this week. He's forcing touchbacks on 70.8 percent of his kickoffs, which is tops in the NFC.
"Patterson is a fantastic kickoff returner," Garrett said. "He took one back 109 yards last week, so that's certainly been a real weapon for their football team. Dan has been fantastic this year, I think he's second in the NFL. He kicks them consistently long and deep and high and hard for those guys to bring them back. I think we had seven kickoffs in the game the other day, and six of them were touchbacks. He just does a fantastic job." [embedded_ad]
That can make it easy for a kickoff team to just assume it's going in the back of the end zone, but that would be a mistake for the Cowboys against a player of Patterson's caliber.
"You just have to keep emphasizing not to get lulled to sleep," Garrett said. "We evaluate each of those touchbacks, the lanes the guys are in and how much they're hustling. Is everybody getting to the end zone? Is everybody getting to the football? So they get graded and evaluated on every one of them."
Harris knows just how important the special teams' role could be as a deciding factor in this week's game.
"It's going to be what special teams unit comes out to play," he said. "We've been doing our job on special teams every week. We're going to continue to just play."