Matt Daniels, come on down.
All offseason, the talk of the town was how explosive, efficient, and effective Kevin O’Connell’s offense would be or how tenacious, suffocating, and relentless Ed Donatell’s defense would be with Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith coming off the edge.
However, through four games in this young season, the best unit for the Minnesota Vikings has not been their McVay-influenced offense or their Fangio-inspired defense. It’s been Matt Daniels’ special teams group. In his first chance to lead a special teams unit, Daniels has his group performing at a level of consistency unfamiliar to Vikings fans. They were at it again on Sunday: five field goals, a fumble recovery, and a fake punt conversion, all of which were crucial in the Vikings 28-25 victory over New Orleans in London.
As I predicted, Greg Joseph played a monumental role in the win and earned a game ball from coach O’Connell afterward. Even after missing a fourth-quarter extra point to keep the Saints within 3, the NFL’s only active Jewish kicker calmly drilled what proved to be the game-winner from 47 yards out.
Not to be outdone, the punt team was spectacular as well. Two of Ryan Wright’s three punts were placed inside the 12, and on the other, Kris Boyd forced and recovered a fumble, setting the Vikings up for one of Joseph’s five field goals. To put the cherry on top, the aforementioned rookie punter out of Tulane made his first NFL throw to fellow rookie Jalen Nailor to convert an ultra-important fake punt after it had appeared the Saints would get off the field and take all the momentum with them.
Making it a Habit
Week 4 accentuated Minnesota’s special teams success, but it was not an outlier. Daniels’ group has been a rock for a team anchored by new coaches up and down the sideline through four games. Despite only attempting the 15th-most punts in the NFL, Wright has the 5th-most punts inside the 20, nine. Furthermore, he has zero touchbacks . For a punter known for his big leg, precision has been his calling card this year.
When covering kicks, Minnesota has been excellent as well. The Vikings only allow a return on 44% of Wright’s boots. Even when teams have a chance to return, the Vikings aren’t allowing explosive plays . This is a drastic shift from 2021, where the Vikings allowed the 5th-most punt return yardage in the league.
Although Greg Joseph has not been booting touchbacks at the same rate as last season, there seems to be intentionality to it. By leaving kicks short of the end zone, Joseph forces teams to return the ball, playing into Minnesota’s hands. The Vikings are covering kicks masterfully, allowing only 16 yards per kick return, which is second-best in the league]. Further, when opponents attempt to return one of Joseph’s kicks, their average field position is only the 19-yardline    .
What’s more, the return game has been above average as well. Jalen Reagor has shown flashes of what he can do on a punt return, but he has been slightly below average for the most part. Kene Nwangwu, on the other hand, has been consistently solid every time he takes a kick back. Although the second-year man out of Iowa State hasn’t broken one yet, Nwangwu ranks 6th in the NFL in yards per return .
A Little Help?
Comparatively, Minnesota’s offense has been below what some believe their standards should be. Minnesota’s offense ranks 17th in yards, 15th in points, and 25th in red zone efficiency through four weeks . The inconsistent start should be expected for an offense learning a new system under a rookie head coach.
On the defensive side of the ball, Minnesota’s situational play has saved a teetering ship from completely capsizing. Minnesota, who is 12th-best in scoring and third-down defense, were able to stand up when they needed to against Green Bay and Detroit. However, teams are moving the ball at will against the Vikings: Minnesota has allowed the 6th-most total yards and first downs in the NFL. When opponents get in the red zone, they score: the Vikings have given up touchdowns on 73% of trips to the redzone . If these trends continue, opponents will start piling on the points as well. Time to button it up, Mr. O’Donnell.
Perhaps the most underrated aspect of Minnesota’s 3-1 start, the Vikings’ special teams unit has brought stability to a team that has played mostly uneven football for four weeks. Who knows where they’d be without Mr. Daniels and company?
Will is a husband, father of two, and earned an undergraduate degree in Economics (just like Kwesi Adofo-Mensah). Will’s favorite pastimes are water skiing, Minnesota sports, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. He is the co-host of the Load the Box Vikings Podcast with Jordan Hawthorn. Follow him on Twitter (@willbadlose) and find his other sports content at Twins Daily and his very own Bad Loser Blog.