Behind Enemy Lines: Analyzing Seahawks Week 13 Matchup with Viking Maven
With a prime opportunity to move into first place in the NFC West for the first time since Week 2, the Seahawks will seek their fifth consecutive win hosting the Vikings on Monday Night Football.
Setting the stage for an epic Week 13 showdown at CenturyLink Field, I teamed up with Will Ragatz of Viking Maven to break down some of the biggest questions for each team, including how an improved Minnesota offensive line will fare against a suddenly potent Seattle pass rush.
Will Ragatz (RZ): The Seahawks' 9-2 record hasn't been a product of overwhelming dominance - they're 8th in overall DVOA, one spot behind the Vikings. Rather, it's been their incredible ability to win close games (8-1 in games decided by one score) that has them in such good shape for the playoffs. Is that simply a product of having Russell Wilson, or are there any other factors you credit for their close game success?
Corbin Smith (CS): For the most part, Seattle's record is a reflection of Wilson's greatness this season. He's led five fourth quarter comebacks already this year and has put the team on his back numerous occasions to close out close games. But in the past two weeks, the narrative has changed a bit due to Seattle's defensive resurgence. Throwing two interceptions in the past two games, Wilson hasn't played as well as he did during the first half, and yet, the Seahawks have kept winning because the defense has produced eight turnovers and given up just 25 points in the last two games. And one of the two touchdowns they gave up in the last eight quarters came in garbage time late against the Eagles last Sunday. As has been the case all year, fans are waiting for the Seahawks to put everything together in one game.
After struggling in his first season in Minnesota, Kirk Cousins is clearly playing the finest football of his career, and he's been able to do it without one of his best receivers in Adam Thielen. What's been the biggest difference maker for Cousins? How much credit should Kevin Stefanski and the offensive coaching staff receive for his turnaround?
WR: Without a doubt, the biggest difference maker for Cousins this season has been the duo of offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski and assistant head coach Gary Kubiak. When the Vikings promoted Stefanski to full-time OC and brought in Kubiak this offseason, their top priority was to design an offense that prioritizes the things Cousins does well. That offensive plan has proven to be extremely successful, as Cousins leads the league in passer rating and has been worth every penny of the $28 million he's making this year. The most obvious change has been the increase in play action passes. Cousins has always thrived in play action, and the Vikings have made that a clear focus this season with plenty of bootlegs and rollouts that give him time to find Stefon Diggs down the field. He has also benefited from having a fully healthy Dalvin Cook as a safety valve, but the scheme and play-calling have been the most impactful differences for Cousins.
In last season's playoff loss to the Cowboys, the Seahawks' run defense was gashed by Ezekiel Elliott. It seems like that unit has gotten better this season. What changes or improvements were made? And how do you expect the Seahawks to defend Dalvin Cook, who is dangerous as both a runner and a receiver out of the backfield?
CS: I'm not expecting anything fancy from Seattle to defend Cook. Just like any other talented back they'll face, slowing him down will boil down to maintaining run fits and gap integrity while limiting his yardage after contact. He's one of the best in the league in churning out yardage after initial contact and swarming to the football will be critical for the Seahawks this week. Aside from getting toasted by Nick Chubb in Week 6 and dealing with the Lamar Jackson experience in Week 7, Seattle's run defense has been much improved from last year largely due to personnel changes. Jadeveon Clowney has been outstanding defending the run all season long, while veteran defensive tackle Al Woods has quietly had an excellent season plugging up the middle and may be the team's best free agent addition. Having three quality linebackers on the field with high frequency also helps slowing down opposing rushing attacks and there may not be a team with a more talented, experienced trio than Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, and Mychal Kendricks.
Looking at the success of Cook and Alexander Mattison in the backfield as well as Cousins' improvements this year, how would you assess the play of Minnesota's offensive line? How do you see them matching up against Seattle's defensive front led by Jadeveon Clowney and Poona Ford?
WR: The offensive line still isn't a strength of this team, but it has definitely improved from early in the season when it was an obvious weakness. First-round center Garrett Bradbury got off to a remarkably poor start to the season, though some of that may have been due to a string of difficult individual matchups to open the year. He has gotten much better over the past couple months and is showing why the Vikings thought he was such a perfect fit for Kubiak's zone blocking scheme. Bradbury will have his hands full with Ford on Monday, but I'm more confident in his ability to hold his own in that matchup than I would've been in September or October. The player who has struggled the most on the offensive line is left guard Pat Elflein, who has been inconsistent all season and is a weakness the Seahawks will likely try to take advantage of. The best player on the line by far is right tackle Brian O'Neill, who figures to see a lot of Clowney in this game. O'Neill and left tackle Riley Reiff's ability to keep Clowney and Ziggy Ansah out of the backfield and keep the pocket clean for Cousins will be an important key to watch. Cook's involvement in the screen game - as well as his talent in bouncing runs to the outside and breaking tackles - allows him to be productive even if the offensive line isn't dominating.
Statistically, the weakness of the Seahawks' defense has been stopping the pass. Have the additions of Jadeveon Clowney and Quandre Diggs made an impact in that area?
CS: Three weeks ago, I would've argued that the addition of Clowney hadn't made much of a difference because Seattle's pass rush as a whole was invisible. Before Week 10 against the 49ers, the Seahawks ranked near the bottom of the league in every meaningful pass rushing metric, including sacks and pressure rate. But with Diggs installed as the new free safety that game, improved secondary play instantly helped the pass rush awaken. Clowney wrecked San Francisco on Monday Night Football, recording five quarterback hits, a strip sack, and a fumble returned for a touchdown, while the rest of the defense produced four sacks and five quarterback hits. Even without Clowney last week, the success pursuing opposing quarterbacks continued, as the Seahawks ambushed Carson Wentz to a tune of three sacks and nine quarterback hits. The front line looks to be coming together at the right time, but the presence of Diggs can't be understated either. He's brought excellent range, tackling skills, and communication skills to the equation, giving Seattle an instant upgrade at a critical position defensively.
Due to limited cap room, the Vikings didn't make any splashy moves with trades or free agency as the Seahawks did to land Clowney and Diggs. But they've received quality contributions from their 2019 draft class, including Bradbury and tight end Irv Smith Jr. Have you been surprised with how well this rookie class has played? And what's been the biggest surprise from that group to this point?
WR: The Vikings' draft class was seen as solid back in April, but I don't think anyone expected it to be this good, this quickly. As I mentioned earlier, Bradbury's development during the season has been very encouraging, and he looks like a potential 10-year starter at center. Smith, who turned 21 during training camp, has become a very productive contributor, especially since Adam Thielen was injured. He caught his first career touchdown pass before the bye week and offers a lot more speed and quickness than the 30-year old Kyle Rudolph at this point in time. Given how often the Vikings use multiple tight ends, Smith is on the field all the time, so it's important that he has become a serviceable blocker after struggling in that area early on. The biggest surprises have been the contributions of third-rounder Alexander Mattison and seventh-round receiver Bisi Johnson. The Mattison selection was questioned at the time, but he is the perfect complement for Cook and has thrived in this running game. Johnson stepped into Thielen's starting job and has been very reliable ever since.
DK Metcalf has quickly emerged as a strong receiving option alongside Tyler Lockett this season. Did anyone expect him to be this good as a rookie? On the subject of Seahawks receivers, will Josh Gordon be an important part of the game plan against the Vikings?
CS: The Seahawks were cautiously optimistic about Metcalf during the offseason. He was the must-see attraction during open training camp practices, constantly making highlight reel grabs and becoming Wilson's go-to target in practice. But then, he underwent minor knee surgery after the second preseason game and his status for the season opener was in doubt. He's exceeded all expectations, ranking near the top of most major categories for rookie receivers, but as seen last week, he's struggled with drops at times this year. Still, I expect Wilson will be looking for him frequently against Minnesota and Gordon could also see an expanded role in this third game with the team. He drew a pass interference penalty on a vertical route last weekend and has made three clutch first down catches, so it seems like it's only a matter of time until he has a breakout performance. One other name I'd watch closely in this game? Tight end Jacob Hollister, who could be a matchup problem for Minnesota's linebackers in coverage and has become one of Wilson's most reliable safety valves over the past several games.
Seattle has two promising young cornerbacks in Shaquill Griffin and Tre Flowers who had a "coming of age" game of sorts against Minnesota last year. The two of them held Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen in check for most of the game. Without Thielen available, how do you expect the Vikings to attack Griffin and Flowers in this rematch? And who else do you expect to have a big role in Minnesota's game plan throwing the football?
WR: Getting Diggs going is always a key to the Vikings' passing game. When he's being targeted downfield, he gives the offense another dimension that makes it very tough to defend. An elite route runner with sure hands, Diggs has the ability to take the top off of a defense and has been used as a deep threat off of play action frequently this year. Even as he's commanded more defensive attention since Thielen was injured, Diggs has been able to be productive against all kinds of coverage. I expect the Vikings to move Diggs around a lot against the Seahawks and to try to get him involved early and often. Still, being without Thielen is an unfortunate blow, but Johnson is a solid player who is dangerous in short and intermediate routes. Beyond those two, almost all of the rest of Cousins' passes will go to non-receivers. Rudolph and Smith will be heavily involved, as will Cook in the screen game.
The Seahawks have been incredible in prime time games under Pete Carroll. Kirk Cousins has notoriously struggled in prime time, especially against good teams on the road. Is there any reason to pick against Seattle in this game?
CS: The Seahawks should be the favorite, but interestingly, playing at CenturyLink Field might be the best reason to pick against them this year. Normally, Seattle enjoys as good of home field advantage as any team in the NFL, but that hasn't been the case in 2019. While Carroll's team has an unblemished 6-0 record on the road, they've lost two of their five games at home, struggling to overcome self-inflicted wounds in defeats to the Saints and Ravens. The Seahawks did narrowly win their lone home prime time game against the Rams earlier this year and have been near unbeatable in such situations since Carroll arrived. That being said, the Vikings have all the ingredients to pick up a big road win with Cousins playing the best football of his career, Cook churning out big yardage on the ground, and a defense featuring two excellent edge rushers to harass Wilson.
Though both teams were in the playoff hunt when they played last December, the vibe surrounding this game feels different than a year ago. Each team is in the thick of their respective divisional races and has a shot at earning a bye in the top-heavy NFC. How confident should Vikings fans feel about Cousins and company achieving a different result in Seattle this time around?
WR: I agree that this game feels different, mostly because this appears to be a different Cousins than the one that played the Seahawks a year ago. If Vikings fans can get past the numbers and narratives based on this being a prime time game in Seattle, there are some reasons for confidence. The Seahawks' secondary is burnable, even if the Vikings don't have Thielen. With Diggs and Cook, the Vikings have two of the best big play threats in the league. And the team's strong run defense should be able to limit the success of Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny on the ground. The main thing that should scare them is Wilson going against a struggling pass defense. It's hard to escape the feeling that Wilson will encounter little resistance from the Vikings' secondary, and will gash them on the way to a Seahawks victory. Getting pressure on Wilson with four-man rushes would make a big difference in this game.