MINNEAPOLIS – Marcus Sherels knew an opportunity or two could come his way Sunday, and he was ready when they did.
Five minutes into the third quarter and with the Vikings clinging to a four-point lead, Sherels backpedaled, hauled in Matt Haack's punt and was off to the races.
Sherels caught the ball at the 9, curled toward the right sideline and sprinted ahead. He dipped and dodged, cutting in and back near the Vikings 45 and making Dolphins miss. He darted back inside at the Miami 35 and came "this close" to making it all the way before being tripped up by Leonte Carroo.
The 70-yard return flipped the field position for Minnesota and set up a drive that was capped with a Dan Bailey field goal to extend the Vikings lead to seven in an eventual 41-17 victory.
A man of few words, Sherels stood near his locker postgame and avoided taking too much credit for himself.
"The guys did a really good job blocking, and I just ran, and he kind of got my heel at the end," Sherels said.
"Their punter had a really good leg, and we knew we'd get a few chances," he later added.
The return came after back-to-back sacks of Tannehill by the Vikings defense and helped swing momentum back Minnesota's direction.
"Any time we're out there, we try to get an explosive play, and we were able to do that today."
Sherels rumbled off the play in custom-painted Best Christmas Ever cleats for the NFL's "My Cause, My Cleats" initiative. The gold-sparkled laces may have added some glitz to Sherels' look, but his under-the-radar explosiveness is nothing new to teammates.
"As you saw today, as a returner he's really dynamic," said safety and special teamer Anthony Harris. "He doesn't say a lot, but that's kind of his game. He doesn't say a lot, but he's patient. I know sometimes it can [frustrating to struggle], but he's always been a team player, always talking positive. Today he was able to spring for a bunch of big returns."
Sherels returned five punts for 116 yards, which ranks second-most for a single game in franchise history behind his 119 yards against the Giants in October 2013.
Prior to Sunday, his highest return total this season had been 52 yards at the Jets in Week 7.
"It was nice to flip the field position with Marcus and the punt return team a couple times today," said Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer, who had emphasized the need for more explosive plays on special teams earlier this week. "I thought the one he was going to break."
Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr said it's been a season-long goal to spring the big return.
"It's tough now with kickoff rules and all that to return kicks, [so] punts probably give us the biggest opportunity, and Marcus has been doing it for a long time," Barr said. "[Haack] outkicked his coverage a couple times today, and Marcus made him pay for it."
Sherels has been the Vikings leading punt return man since 2011.
The Rochester, Minnesota, native first joined his home-state team the season before as an undrafted free agent. He joins defensive end Everson Griffen as the only two members of the 2010 team that are still on the roster.
Griffen had fun watching his classmate show his wheels.
"We've been missing him hitting the big returns," Griffen said. "Me and Marcus, we're the longest-tenured players here.
"He's an awesome guy – nice and quiet," Griffen quipped. "But he finally got his time, and he did his thing today."
Sherels' performance led an overall solid outing by Minnesota's special teams.
Ameer Abdullah returned one kickoff 24 yards; Miami's other three kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. As far as coverage, Minnesota allowed Dolphins kickoff returner Kenyan Drake to record 45 yards on two attempts but held Danny Amendola to just eight yards on two punt returns.
View game action images as the Vikings take on the Miami Dolphins at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday.
Matt Wile punted three times for 127 yards for an average of 42.3 and a net average of 39.7.
Dan Bailey made field goals from 36 and 34 yards out, respectively, and finished the day 5-of-5 on PATs.
The Vikings entered Sunday's game knowing they needed to play complementary football, and they did just that. Following the game, quarterback Kirk Cousins pointed out that the high-scoring contest was "more than [just] the offense."
"You look at Marcus Sherels' punt return, [it] gave us three points," Cousins said. "We didn't do anything as an offense [on that drive]; we were terrible. I walked off the field, undoing my chin strap, ticked off, and we get three points out of it. That's not our offense."
He went on to highlight Minnesota's dominant defensive performance and how it all worked together.
"[The Dolphins] go for it on fourth-and-11, and our defense gets a sack. It gives us the ball on the [16-yard line]. That's not our offense," Cousins said. "When you start to play complementary football, certain phases of football start to look really good, when maybe it's other people helping you out. Guess what? The reason there's nine sacks is because we scored 21 points in the first quarter, and it gave our defense the opportunity to pin their ears back and go.
"So, it's everybody working together," Cousins added. "That's NFL football – team football."