When the Vikings last faced the Seattle Seahawks in the 2015 playoffs, Richard Sherman was their shutdown corner, while Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor roamed the safety spots, comprising the Legion of Boom that was the identity of the team that won Super Bowl XLVIII and reached Super Bowl XLIX.
That group beat the Vikings in 2012, 2013, 2015 and, of course, the frigid Wild Card game played at TCF Bank Stadium three seasons ago. With a fresh group of defensive backs now occupying the Seahawks secondary, Minnesota looks to end its losing four-game losing streak Monday at Seattle.
Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins faced the Legion of Boom team four seasons ago as a member of the Washington Redskins — also in primetime. “I don’t know that any of that secondary will be playing on Monday night,” Cousins said.
From 2011-17 the Seahawks three stars coexisted, combining for 14 Pro Bowls and helping the Seahawks finish in the top 11 in pass defense for seven consecutive seasons — leading the league twice.
Now Sherman resides in San Francisco. Chancellor’s career is likely over due to a neck injury. And Thomas’s future is uncertain after breaking his leg earlier this season.
The Seahawks are ushering in a new legion to supplant the old one that became as popular as any secondary the league has seen. In their win last Sunday against the 49ers, Bradley McDougald and Tedric Thompson occupied the safety spots. Tre Flowers and Shaquill Griffin played corner. Former Vikings UDFA Justin Coleman rotated in at the nickel.
The names and faces are different, yes. But head coach Mike Zimmer thinks they look the same.
“Their corners are long and can run,” Zimmer said Thursday. “They’re bump-and-run guys that are physical. Their safeties are not as big as [Chancellor] was, but they look similar, yes. It looks like they have a mold that they are looking for.”
Schematically, not much has changed from the defense that led the league in fewest points allowed from 2012-15. Seattle still packs the box with eight men to create unblocked players, trusts its corners to press and asks its high safety to cover lots of ground.
Here’s a look Cousins got on a 2nd and 10 back in 2014, when the Redskins lost 27-17. Notice the congested box, bump-and-run corners and a single-high safety.
And here’s what they showed last week against the 49ers. The single-high safety and tight-guarding corners haven’t changed. It’s no surprise since new defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. was with the Seahawks as a linebackers coach from 2010-14 and saw the defensive structure at its finest.
The Seahawks have developed scheme continuity. Now they hope to re-develop personnel continuity, which they were fortunate to have for over half a decade. They don’t have a shutdown corner like Sherman anymore. Griffin has allowed the 18th-most yards in coverage this season, per Pro Football Focus, while Flowers has allowed the 15th most. At safety, McDougald has allowed the second-most yards in coverage.
“They’re just growing together,” said Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll on a conference call. “It’s just kind of the start of an opportunity to keep these guys intact for awhile where they gain the familiarity and the chemistry that it takes to really communicate at a high level. … You just play better when you know each other that well.”
Carroll pointed to the Vikings as a good example of what continuity can do for a secondary. Though Minnesota’s DBs lack the fame of Seattle’s “L.O.B.” they have sustained a similar core since 2015 and been able to expand upon their exotic looks. Their comfort in the basics enabled them to more easily adjust when teams were outscheming them early in the 2018 season.
“The Vikes have had that over the years,” said Carroll. “It’s been there. You can see the benefit of it. You can see the benefit of it in the great play that they have, so it’s a challenge, but I think it comes from the top. You’ve got to have a commitment to what you’re looking for and what you’re counting on.”
The Seahawks rank 19th in passing yards allowed, though they are tied for sixth in interceptions with 12. In a softer early-season schedule, they held four of six teams to under 200 yards passing and amassed 13 takeaways in the first half-dozen games. In the last six games against some better quarterbacks, they’ve allowed 250 or more passing yards four times.
“They still play with the same passion and energy that they always have played with,” Cousins said.
It will be a familiar look for Cousins, who has started against the Seahawks twice. Same for Zimmer, who saw them a pair of times in 2015. Only Cousins has beaten them, while Zimmer remains winless.
The Vikings ability to exploit the relatively raw secondary may be the tipping point in a must-win ballgame.