EAGAN, Minn. — Since the day Kevin O'Connell arrived in Minnesota, he's placed the team's culture near the top of his list.
The first-year Vikings head coach's emphasis on togetherness has trickled down throughout the entire organization, especially within the Vikings special teams unit under first-year coordinator Matt Daniels.
"He brings energy out to special teams, and he just makes special teams fun," outside linebacker Pat Jones II said. "A lot of people, they think that special teams — they don't enjoy it, but special teams is a really fun part of the game."
Daniels said he tries to create a strong environment for his players and make sure they're taking their roles seriously.
"You just have to figure out and carve specific roles and we're big on clear job responsibility, and I think that's really the biggest thing. Making sure that it's well-communicated on what we expect of you," Daniels said. "Every single individual on this team has to work on a consistent daily basis to maintain their job because if we're being honest, we're looking to replace people every single day. That's why it's important that you're showing up, being the best version of yourself on a daily basis. Otherwise, we'll find somebody else to replace you. We don't try to depict it as, 'If you don't do your job, you're getting up out of here,' but obviously we want to carve our roles for specific people and offer a clear job responsibility so those guys can feel like they do have an impact because every individual is important."
The dedication from Daniels' group has paid off for the Vikings so far this season.
Punter Ryan Wright and kicker Greg Joseph were named NFC Special Teams Players of the Week in October. Cornerback Kris Boyd and linebacker Troy Dye have each recovered fumbles during punt returns by opponents. Boyd's led to a field goal against the Saints, and Dye's set up a touchdown against the Cardinals.
Minnesota's special teams will be put to the test, though, against Washington punter Tress Way, who leads the NFL in total punting yards (2,161) and net yards (2,017) and is tied for first for the most punts (45) and punts inside the 20-yard line (19). He is also third in net average yards at 44.8.
"Tress, I've had the pleasure of playing against him the past two years," Daniels said. "For one, he's a lefty punter. He's been doing it for a long time, he's an All-Pro, an NFC Pro Bowl type of player. I think he won NFC Special Teams Player of the Month last month, and the guy is really, really good."
Daniels added what makes Way special is his intent of where he's punting the football.
"A lot of times you can watch the tape and see where a guy is punting the football, which allows me to say, 'J.R. [Jalen Reagor], this guy, if he's offset this way or if he's tilted this way, you have a good idea of being able to get a beat on the ball and beat it to the spot," Daniels said. "Whereas, Tress is always offset to our left and so he can hit the ball, he can crank it back to our right or he can hit it back to our left, so that actually makes us have to play the ball true straight up in the middle of the field. He's able to match his hang with his distance and have unbelievable direction with that, as well. Just the combination of those three things is what makes him elite, and he's a lefty punter, so that makes it even tougher because obviously the revolution of the ball is much different."
Daniels said the Vikings flipped their JUGS machine this week to simulate a left-footed punter to prepare for Way.
Another challenge for the Vikings special teams group will be the conditions of FedEx Field.
"If we're being honest, it's not the best field," Daniels said. "It's kind of sandy a little bit; we're expecting a little bit of rain in the morning time so it might be a little bit damp, so it'll be interesting to see.
"I think this might be Greg's first time playing out there, obviously [Ryan's] first time playing out there, so we'll do a good job of getting out there pregame," Daniels continued. "Greg has actually spoken to a couple of kickers already around the league just kind of what to expect so he can kind of start preparing mentally on how he wants to approach that."
Here's what Sam Thiel, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of Vikings.com will be watching for in Sunday's game:
Under pressure | By Sam Thiel
The Vikings offensive line will have its hands full going against a Washington defensive front compiled of several young players.
Within the Commanders 4-3 base defense are four former first-round picks in defensive end Montez Sweat (26th overall, 2019), defensive tackles Daron Payne (13th overall, 2018) and Jonathan Allen (17th overall, 2017) and outside linebacker Jamin Davis (19th overall, 2021).
Washington also had defensive end Chase Young — the second overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft — return to practice on Wednesday after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last season. He won't suit up on Sunday.
Vikings Offensive Coordinator Wes Phillips was in Washington when it drafted Allen and Payne. He said he's watched them and the rest of the Commanders young players develop into quality pass rushers.
"Really, what stands out is where they've put a lot of their investment, the front, even without Chase. I was actually in Washington when they took Jonathan and took Daron and seeing those guys up close, they've really progressed as players since I was there," Phillips said. "They've really kind of improved every year, so it's a physical front, a physical group. They've made the investment there and it's paying off for them. I think they're first in the league in QB hits. Sacks are sacks, but they're getting pressure and hits, whether the QB is getting the ball out or not. It's going to be a real challenge for us."
Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and Commanders.
Back to where it started | By Lindsey Young
Kirk Cousins is making his first trip back to Washington since signing with the Vikings in free agency. This will mark his second time playing his former team, as the Vikings hosted the Commanders in 2019.
The quarterback spoke with Twin Cities media members this week about what it will mean to revisit the place he began his NFL career as a fourth-round draft pick in 2012.
"I spent six years there, have a lot of great memories, and just think very highly of a lot of people that I've worked with there – coaches and players and teammates," Cousins said. "[It will] bring back a lot of those memories when I go back."
View photos of Vikings players during practice on Nov. 3 at TCO Performance Center.
Against Washington in 2019, Cousins was 23-of-26 passing for 285 yards. He did not throw a touchdown or an interception, and his completion percentage of 88.5 was his highest in a start. The Vikings defeated the Commanders 19-9 by way of a Dalvin Cook rushing touchdown and four field goals.
Cousins' statistics haven't been the flashiest on paper this season, but Head Coach Kevin O'Connell spoke highly of everything he's doing and expects to see a strong performance Sunday. During Minnesota's five-game win streak, Cousins has completed 67.2 percent of his passes, thrown eight touchdowns against two interceptions and totaled a passer rating of 95.6, bouncing back from a rough Week 2 game in Philadelphia.
"When I evaluated where we're at as an offense on the bye, I think Kirk's playing some really, really good football," O'Connell said. "I think he's handling our offense at a level that's allowing us to continue to build and continue to challenge our players around him to do things to help put us in successful positions. It all runs through the quarterback – his understanding of our run game, our pass game, our protections, all of the tools that he has to help us apply pressure to the defense. He's played really well."
Though he doesn't know what type of reception he'll receive in Washington, Cousins said he "had a great experience" with Commanders fans while playing there.
"I've really had the privilege of playing for two teams in this league that have a great deal of history and have had a great deal of success and travel well when we're on the road," he said. "Not every team has that. I've been blessed to play for those two teams. It was a very positive experience."
Defense finding its footing | By Craig Peters
The new-look Vikings defense is taking shape with more time on task.
Za'Darius Smith garnered some well-deserved recognition with NFC Player of the Week (8) and Month (October) honors after his 3.0 sacks against the Cardinals pushed his season total to 8.5, tied for the NFL Lead entering Week 9.
Smith was a dynamic chess piece, attacking from multiple spots while teammates helped contain Kyler Murray. The pressure helped force interceptions by Harrison Smith (his third of the season) and Camryn Bynum.
"Za'Darius has been a great addition to our team. Everybody can see that, but just really him coming here in the spring and connecting with this team, he's connected with the hearts of our players, not just the play you're seeing on the field," Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell said. "Right now, he's getting a lot of the production, but Danielle [Hunter] is drawing chips and setting things up for different guys, all of our guys in there, D.J. [Wonnum], Pat Jones, the whole group, [Dalvin] Tomlinson, right on down the line.
"It's a team rush group," Donatell added. "You'll see the productivity spread around, but we love him, and he gives us some added things where we can position him to cause mental stress for the opponent."
The Vikings are tied for fifth in the NFL with 21 sacks through their first seven games.
Patrick Peterson has been tested early this season, including by his former team last week, and he's answered the call, recording 10 passes defensed so far (tied for third in the NFL entering Week 9) and limited opposing quarterbacks to a 48.5 completion percentage that ranks fifth in the NFL (minimum of 30 targets), according to NFL Media Research.
This week, the Vikings will try to disrupt the connection between former Minnesota QB Taylor Heinicke and receiver Terry McLaurin, who has averaged 5.5 receptions and 93.0 receiving yards per game in Heinicke's two starts this season.
Updates on Lewis Cine & Irv Smith, Jr.
Vikings rookie safety Lewis Cine, who suffered a compound fracture in his lower leg during Minnesota's Week 4 game against New Orleans in London, was in the locker room Friday.
Cine has already been rehabbing the injury that required surgery in England and delayed his return. He's stayed positive.
"I made peace with it kind of the same day, and I was like, 'All right, what's next?' After surgery, I placed my mind on, 'I have to dominate rehab,' and that's my only focus," Cine said. "That's what I've been doing ever since."
O'Connell said Friday that tight end Irv Smith, Jr., who suffered a high ankle sprain against Arizona, more than likely will not have surgery but was still making his final decision.
"That's what I love about [Executive Director of Player Health and Performance] Tyler [Williams] and [Head Athletic Trainer] Uriah [Myrie] go about it," O'Connell said. "You put all the medical information out there, and between Irv and some of his folks and the people that support him, we just want to make sure we always want to do what's in his best interest and whatever we think will get him back playing for us because he's been a real factor for us. Like I said, that tight ends room, I envision it being a heck of a room when we get Irv back working with the rest of the guys."