The Minnesota Vikings are poised to make a playoff run — if the team is to be believed. An improvement to the two greatest weaknesses of the Vikings offense should, with a stout defense, give them the ammunition they need to seriously threaten in the postseason.
But in the last preseason game, against Buffalo, the Vikings first-team offense didn’t show that they could improve in either pass protection or the running game. With two sacks on seven dropbacks and 2.6 yards per carry, the offense showed no signs of getting better.
An even stouter opponent awaits them in Seattle. Last year, they were second in the league in sack rate and first in the league in yards per carry allowed. Melvin Gordon only averaged 2.3 yards per carry against them in the last preseason game and Phillip Rivers’ six dropbacks weren’t clean of pressure.
Should the Vikings hold their own in those two areas, that would be a substantial improvement and give them pushback against a worrisome initial showing. The combined efforts of Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett and Frank Clark — all top-20 edge defenders, with Bennett and Avril knocking on the door to the top 10 — will likely terrorize Mike Remmers and Rashod Hill; they combined for 166 pressures last year, with 26.5 sacks.
The Seahawks are also comfortable with stopping the run up the middle with two pluggers in Jarran Reed and Ahtyba Rubin and Pro Bowl linebackers K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner behind them.
Naturally, this will all be complicated by the Seahawks’ all-world secondary, regardless of whether or not they start recently-signed Tramaine Brock at cornerback. Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas will give the Seahawks’ pass rush more time to get to the quarterback while Kam Chancellor ably fills in as an effective linebacker in the run game.
Up front, the Vikings will not only be deploying tackles Hill (unless newly-signed tackle Riley Reiff is improving faster than we expect; he did participate in team drills recently) and Remmers, they’ll use some combination of Joe Berger, Nick Easton and Pat Elflein in the middle of the line. It’s unlikely Alex Boone will play, as he missed three practices this week with his left knee wrapped.
Two of the three centers will be forced to play guard. One of them, Berger, will be playing guard by design, but the other two are battling it out for the starting center job and it figures that some of the snaps at guard will play a role. The presumptive leader in most people’s eyes for the starting center job is Elflein, and that’s a fair assumption, but Easton outplayed him last week — Elflein snapped the ball poorly at least twice and had just as many errors per play as Easton did purely as a blocker.
Typically, starters will play much more in the second preseason game. The other three preseason games that have already been played featured an average of 28.5 starting quarterback snaps and a median of 24.5 snaps for the starter. This meant, generally, 19 passing dropbacks.
In some cases, like with Jameis Winston, this meant 45 snaps and 33 dropbacks. The only low-snap efforts were with Blake Bortles (21 snaps and 15 dropbacks), who may not start the season, and Jay Cutler, with 12 snaps and seven dropbacks.
It’s fair to assume that Sam Bradford could play out the first half for the Vikings, and with him a starting lineup that includes both Dalvin Cook and Jerick McKinnon at various points.
The offense has a lot of questions to answer, but the defense isn’t without significant room for improvement either. The run game has been isolated as an area for concern for a few years now, and having a solid interior defensive line is a big part of that. Tom Johnson is a very good pass rusher but has issues in the run game and in his most recent showing got pushed out of the play on more than one occasion.
If he can prevent that from happening against the Seahawks, that would be a big plus. Though their offensive line isn’t known for greatness, Luke Joeckel and Justin Britt should be able to provide enough of a challenge that this would be a solid test for Johnson’s run-defense ability. If he can’t seem to do much against the run, then the Vikings need to see if either Jaleel Johnson or Datone Jones can be more versatile and play the run as well as the pass.
It is possible the Vikings employ Shamar Stephen in a similar role as last year, but given that he just played lights out in camp as a pure one-technique and the fact that the Vikings signed three three-techniques, it would probably not be a smart use of resources or a good way to optimize the roster; Stephen was not particularly good last year as an under tackle and had the opposite problem—while he was superior against the run, his ability to create a pass rush left a lot to be desired.
Against the Bills, the Vikings first-team defense allowed Jonathan Williams and Mike Tolbert to run roughshod over them. The defensive line certainly is responsible for its fair share of the blame, but the linebackers needed to perform better. Anthony Barr played well last week, but has enough questions about his level of play in 2016 that he should put together some more solid performances to ease concerns about his consistency.
Eric Kendricks will want to be more impactful than last time, though the Vikings are likely not too concerned about his long-term prospects. Instead, the focus will be on the competition at weakside linebacker, where we’ve seen uneven performances from the competitors. Edmond Robinson had issues shutting down runs in his direction and folded over to the wrong gap on at least one occasion, while Ben Gedeon was a significant liability in coverage. Emmanuel Lamur was unspectacular and unimpactful, with one tackle on 35 snaps.
The linebackers will be up against a surprisingly large set of running backs, as the Seahawks carry nine including fullbacks. Minnesota’s depth at linebacker is prodigious, and Seattle’s sixth running back may serve as a capable primary backup on other teams. That should provide a good test of different running styles and skills that the different linebackers will have to play against and could reveal, ultimately, who should win the contest.
Cornerbacks Mackensie Alexander and Trae Waynes will also see some interesting looks, with a high-quality quarterback in Russell Wilson providing more than enough to a secondary that will have to prove itself once again, with two of its five major players from last year out of the starting lineup this year. Tyler Lockett will be a game-time decision and Doug Baldwin is expected to play after missing last week’s matchup against the Chargers, and they should be able to do damage against most secondaries. If the Vikings can hold their own against those two, it bodes well for the season.
Ultimately, this preseason game won’t determine the fate of the Vikings going forward, but it does provide us with a preview for some of the position groups we’re paying the most attention to as we prepare for the regular season.