The Minnesota Vikings caught a break in their early season schedule gauntlet last week, escaping Houston with a victory over the winless Texans – a team so listless they dismissed their head coach/general manager the following day. Now it’s back to reality. The Vikings’ first three losses came against teams that are now collectively 10-1 on the season. Next up: the dreaded trip west to take on the 4-0 Seattle Seahawks.
Seattle is never kind to the Vikings, and this game poses a significant obstacle to a two-game winning streak. They are 7-point underdogs even though the Seahawks will be without their 12th man due to COVID-19 restrictions and without Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams due to a groin injury. The track record doesn’t lie: The Vikings are 0-4 against the Seahawks under Mike Zimmer, including the infamous playoff loss at TCF Bank Stadium due to a missed field goal that we don’t discuss in these parts anymore. Overall, they have lost six straight against Pete Carroll and the Seahawks, including four straight losses in Seattle by a cumulative score of 129-77.
Of course, the rivalry with the Seahawks (albeit one-sided) adds an extra layer of intrigue. In the highly unscientific Twitter poll I conducted in June, respondents tabbed the Seahawks as the Vikings’ second-biggest rival outside the NFC North. The Saints won in a landslide, of course.
At least the Vikings beat the Saints once in a while. The Seahawks – not so much, and especially not in prime time. Without even looking it up, any Vikings fan can tell you that their team has never won a game — or even played well — in prime time. Never. It’s never happened.
In other words, Vikings fans, you’ll be waiting all day for Sunday night, but the chances are pretty high that it might not be worth the wait. But let’s still take a look at a few details of the matchup anyway.
SEAHAWKS PLAYER TO WATCH
When previewing Vikings games here at Zone Coverage, I’ve tried to focus more on the subplots since everyone is well-aware of the marquee players and battles. Not this week. Let’s dispense with the notion that something else is of comparable importance to the outcome of this game than whether the Vikings can figure out a way to contain Russell Wilson. That’s the whole ballgame right there. The Vikings have held him in check for parts of games, but they’ve never beaten him.
Wilson is 5-0 against the Vikings in the regular season (6-0 including playoffs). That’s his most wins without a loss against any team. In the five regular-season games, he’s thrown 10 touchdown passes, run in another one, and thrown just two interceptions. His 113.5 career quarterback rating against the Vikings is his second-highest against any team he’s faced at least five times (Falcons, 114.6 in five games).
In short, Wilson has their number.
Oh, and one more thing: He’s playing better than he ever has this season. Wilson currently leads the NFL in passer rating (136.7) and yards per attempt (9.4). He’s thrown an NFL-high 16 touchdown passes and just two interceptions, putting him on pace for (*checks math*) 64 touchdowns and eight picks. He’s probably the leader in the clubhouse at the quarter pole for NFL MVP.
Even if the Vikings muster a pass rush, Wilson’s ability to step up in the pocket, roll out, or otherwise magically extend plays and throw the most accurate deep ball in the game, will offset any amount of pressure more often than not. It’s not like he never takes sacks. He’s taken 11 this season and his offensive line ranks in the middle of the pack in terms of pass-blocking grade by PFF.com (16th out of 32). He has a knack of bouncing back from lost yards due to sacks, though.
Meanwhile, the Vikings rank 30th in pass-rush grade and 23rd in both sacks (7) and pressure percentage (19.9%). Even if the Vikings’ pocket pressure isn’t as inconsistent against Seattle’s line as it has been this season, they will still need some unforced errors as well as a little luck to cope with the Wilson experience.
The Vikings defense vs. Wilson is simply not a fair matchup any way you slice it. And speaking of matchups…
THE BIG MATCHUP
So, if the Vikings never beat Seattle, never play well in prime time and have no prayer of stopping Wilson, why bother watching this game? What hope could they possibly have of pulling off an upset and besmirching the Seahawks’ record?
Well, for one thing, they could try to just outscore them in a pinball points fest – you know, the last team with the ball wins. Vegas is giving this game the highest over/under of the week (57) for good reason: two offenses that can put a lot of points on the board and two suspect defenses.
The “forget-about-defense-just-score-a-bunch-of-points” approach almost worked for the Vikings in Seattle last season.
Dalvin Cook opened the scoring in last year’s contest with a first-quarter touchdown on the Vikings’ first possession of the game and Minnesota actually lead at halftime, 17-10. In the four previous regular-season losses to the Seahawks, the Vikings never led at halftime and, in fact, only held two leads at any point – both in the first half of the 2012 game. Alas, Seattle came back in the second half last season and outlasted the Vikings 37-30 in a Monday Night game that presumably hit the over.
The same approach might be the Vikings’ best bet this time around.
You know Wilson will get his, firing downfield to the likes of Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf, while Chris Carson keeps the Vikings defense honest with a bruising run game. It’s a given they’ll put up at least 30 points, as they have in every other game. It turns out that the 37-30 win over the Vikings’ last season is the Seahawks’ new formula. They’ve won this season by scores of 38-25, 35-30, 38-31 and 31-23. That’s their style now. The Legion of Boom defense is long gone.
Bobby Wagner is the lone stalwart left from said L.O.B. defense and he remains a key matchup for the Vikings in this one because he’s still performing at a high level. Wagner (8th) and teammate K.J. Wright (6th) both rank in the top 10 at linebacker in terms of an overall grade, according to PFF.com. Specifically, Wagner ranks fourth in run defense grade among linebackers, and his matchup against Cook – the NFL’s leading rusher – will be the key to the Vikings’ offensive success.
The Vikings need to feed Cook to give Kirk Cousins time to throw downfield to Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson against a vulnerable Seahawks secondary. They also need Cook to help control the time of possession, keeping the ball away from Wilson. Wouldn’t you know it, the Vikings won the time of possession battle against the Texans last week for the first time in five regular-season games dating back to last season… and won for the first time in those five games. Getting Cook going and accounting for Wagner to get him blocked will go a long way towards making that happen.
As mentioned above, the Vikings hung with the Seahawks in Seattle in the first half of last year’s game before things got out of hand in the second half. Having the wheels come off after halftime against the Seahawks has been a pattern – one the Vikes need to correct in order to win this Sunday night.
In the five-game regular-season losing streak to the Seahawks, the Vikings have reached double-digits in the second half just once (13 points last year). Conversely, the Seahawks have reached double digits every time.
The Seahawks have outscored the Vikings in the second half of those five games, 89-37.
In other words, if the Vikings can somehow manage to hold serve in the first half, halftime adjustments might hold the key to a win on Sunday night. Your move, Mike Zimmer.