The Seattle Seahawks understand what it’s like to undergo a defensive overhaul like the Minnesota Vikings are this year; to lose familiar faces that defined the team’s identity.
What they have on the offensive side, though, has staved off the sharp decline that often comes with rebuilding on the fly. Russell Wilson has been a constant that’s kept the Seahawks competitive. He brought them into their next generation without a losing season — he’s never had one. Now Seattle is 4-0 and seems to be comfortable in their new identity, which is crafted around Wilson rather than the defense.
The undefeated Seahawks are winning differently than they did in years past. Seattle was never fully able to reconstruct the Legion of Boom that as the No. 1 defense for four straight years carried them to two Super Bowl appearances and one Super Bowl win between 2012-15. Since Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor departed following the 2017 season, Seattle has ranked 17th and 27th in pass defense. Yet their offense, fueled by the perpetual MVP candidate Wilson, has hardly slowed, leading them to two seasons of double-digit wins and a pair of playoff appearances since the defensive facelift.
“If you have one of the best quarterbacks in the league then you’re always going to be in the game,” said Vikings co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson. “You’re going to always have a chance to succeed. If you look at it, last year and this year, they’ve won a lot of close games at the end. When it’s winning time, he has the ability to drive his team down the field and score to win the football game. When you have that kind of guy, you’re going to be in a lot of football games.”
The Seahawks lost a lot of talent before the 2018 season and started 0-2. From that point on, Wilson is 25-9 with 10 game-winning drives, tied for the league lead in that span. Seattle won 10 of their 11 regular season games in 2019 by one possession, including against the Vikings by a 37-30 score.
Wilson, who has the second-most wins in football since being drafted in 2012 (behind only Tom Brady), has been so good he’s seemingly coaxed the Seahawks into a more pass-happy offense than they’ve shown in the past. He is on pace for 548 pass attempts and his first-ever 5,000-yard season. A team that was top-3 in rushing attempts two straight years is now 22nd, while Wilson has dropped back over 35 times a game during Seattle’s 4-0 start.
“You sit in a room with these great quarterbacks, and they have vision, and they know what they like, and they know what they do best,” said Vikings offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. “Sometimes you as a coach are sitting there attacking something and they’re telling you, ‘Hey, I don’t like that. Let me do this and I’ll do it well.’ So you’ve got to listen. These guys work really hard at what they do. Obviously Russell is really on a roll here.”
The Vikings are currently where the Seahawks were in 2018, trying to mitigate the foibles of a new-look defense by doubling-down on the rushing attack. (The Seahawks may be Letting Russ Cook, but the Vikings are letting Dalvin cook.) The obvious difference between the franchises is in the quarterbacks. Wilson has been given offensive lines that ranked 30th or worse in pass blocking five of his eight full seasons in the league — and the other three were no higher than 18th. No bother: He’s one of only four quarterbacks since 2012 with over 1,000 attempts to post a passer rating over 100 with an interception rate below 2%.
While Wilson is the poster boy for overcoming obstacles to win, Cousins has a reputation for needing perfect conditions. Part of the formula that Cousins required in the previous two seasons was a top 10 defense, which has thus far abandoned the Vikings in a way it never truly abandoned the Seahawks. Seattle has finished 11th and 22nd the last two years in points allowed and 21st so far in 2020. While they place last in yards allowed, head coach Mike Zimmer noted that’s likely because of their big leads late in games. Something the Seahawks have never stopped doing, though, is taking the ball away.
“I think Seattle’s recipe for success has always been turnover margin,” Zimmer said.
In the two years since disbanding the Legion of Boom, Seattle has finished first and tied for third in take-give. Part of that is Wilson’s care of the football, part is a well-refined Cover 3 defensive scheme that has always featured fast, physical personnel. The latest iteration of the secondary has as much talent as any Seahawks defense in several years, featuring Jamal Adams, Quinton Dunbar and Shaquill Griffin (Adams has been ruled out of Sunday’s game with an injury).
“I mean, they just fly to the ball. They keep things in front of them,” said wide receiver Adam Thielen. “They kind of know where the ball is going to go based off what teams do against them, what kind of routes they run against them. When a team plays pretty much the same defense for the most part of the game, they know what teams do to try to attack them, so they basically just kind of let everybody stay in front of them and then they attack the ball. You see it over and over on film. Once the ball is thrown, they’re going full speed to the ball and hitting guys and being physical, and you see that week in and week out with them.”
The reality is most teams have to rebuild at some point, but Seattle hit the jackpot with a Hall of Fame quarterback who could score 35 points a week if asked and a defense that was opportunistic enough to change some games. The Vikings may not coast through their own revamp with such ease.