Enemy Confidential: Much at Stake as Seahawks Face Mirror Image in Vikings

Dan Viens

For the second straight year, the Vikings are getting set to play a December Monday Night Football game in Seattle, only this time around there is much more at stake. The 2018 Vikings came into the game at 6-5-1, living on the outskirts of the conference playoff race, and scuffling on offense. The fallout from their 21-7 loss at CenturyLink Field was swift and significant, as the team fired offensive coordinator John DeFillipo the next day.

This year’s Vikings are tied for the best record in the NFC North at 8-3, with the Packers currently holding the tiebreaker courtesy of their head-to-head win over Minnesota in Week 2. They’re winning differently than last year, with the offense often carrying the day. The Vikings are led by a dynamic trio of playmakers surrounding quarterback Kirk Cousins. Running back Dalvin Cook is the NFL’s third leading rusher with 1,017 yards, while the receiving duo of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs has combined for 53 catches and 11 touchdowns, despite Thielen missing three games due to injury.

Defensively, the Vikings have taken a step back in some regards despite continuity in their defensive depth chart. They currently sit at 15th in the league in yards allowed per game after finishing fourth overall in 2018, though they've managed to limit opponents on the scoreboard, ranking sixth in the league giving up 18.6 points per game.

Here’s a closer look at the Seahawks upcoming opponent, including series history, additions/departures, key numbers, injuries, and Carroll’s evaluation of the Vikings:

SERIES HISTORY

-17th all time meeting. Seahawks lead the series 11-6.

Seattle has won the last five matchups between these two teams, including the notorious wild card game in the frigid cold of Minnesota in 2016. With the Vikings new indoor stadium still a year away from completion, the Seahawks battled sub-zero temperatures and appeared to be on the verge of going home empty-handed until Vikings kicker (and future Seahawk) Blair Walsh shanked a 27-yard field goal in the final seconds, preserving a 10-9 Seattle win. Most recently, Seattle beat Minnesota 21-7 in prime time last season.

WHAT’S NEW

--Additions: Without much in the way of available salary cap space, the Vikings played it conservatively this past offseason, choosing to keep most of a roster together they felt was close to being worthy of contention.They did add a starter on each side of the line with right guard Josh Kline and former Seahawk defensive tackle Shemar Stephan being added on a pair of three-year free agent deals.

In the draft, the Vikings set their sights on improving the much-maligned offensive line, selecting North Carolina State center Garrett Bradbury in the first round. That move has paid off, as Bradbury has been holding down the starting center spot. They selected Alabama tight end Irv Smith Jr. in the second round and Boise State running back Alexander Mattison in the third, and both have played big roles as rookies.

--Departures: The only big-name player the Vikings failed to retain from 2018 was defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. The one-time Seahawk signed with the Browns as a free agent.

KEY INJURIES

--Like every team at this point of the season, the Vikings are dealing with their share of injuries. Thielen has missed three of the last four games with an injured hamstring and has been limited in practice this week, but he's expected to play Monday. Both starting safeties, Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris, as well as Stephen, Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen, were limited in practice this week but are expected to suit up.

INSIDE THE NUMBERS

114.8: Kirk Cousins passer rating, best in the NFL. (Russell Wilson is second at 112.1)

2.6: Yards after contact per carry for Dalvin Cook, tied for fifth-highest among qualified running backs.

9.5: Yards per attempt by the Vikings on play action passes, highest in the league.

2: Number of 20-plus yard runs surrendered by Minnesota’s defense this season, best in the NFL.

83.3: Opponents passer rating allowed by the Vikings defense, fourth-lowest in the NFL.

1,884: Air yards given up by Minnesota’s defense, fourth-worst in the league this year.

47: Missed tackles by Vikings, lowest total in the league.

CARROLL’S THOUGHTS

--It’s easy to see why Carroll would hold the Vikings in such high regard, as the two teams are very similar both in talent and in their approach to the game, and Carroll says it all starts with the quarterback.

“We really like this team that we’re playing,” he said. “They do so many things well. They’re well-rounded. They’re strong upfront. They have experienced players everywhere. We recognize a bunch of these guys. We’ve played them for a number of years. I think that the highlight probably is that Kirk Cousins is playing the best he’s ever played. His numbers are great. Seventy percent completion. Really great ratings up at almost 115, all that kind of stuff. Mix in with their running game and the defense that they play and the quarterback play, they’re as hard as you can get to play against. It’s a good challenge for us.”

--But the biggest difference between this year’s Vikings team and the one that lost to the Seahawks in 2018 is the running game, spear-headed by Cook, who’s fully healthy now after missing most of his rookie year with a torn ACL and working back into form last year.

“He’s really explosive,” Carroll said of Cook. “He’s elusive. He’s a really good tackle breaker. Plus, they give him the football out of the backfield as well. In open field, he’s really tough to get down. He’s got a real good style about him, very aggressive running style that allows him to run through tackles. Sometimes, he just bounces off of guys. We’ve got to do a great job of tackling.”

--Bottling up Cook isn’t the only concern defending Minnesota’s diverse offense. Seattle's defensive backs are going to have their hands full trying to account for Thielen, Diggs, and then some.

“It’s even more than that, too,” said Carroll. “They’ve got two tight ends that they can throw the ball to that are really capable. With Dalvin, also, to check the ball down to, it’s just as hard as it gets. They’ve been going without [Adam] Thielen for a bit here. Stefon Diggs has been the go-to guy numbers-wise and all that, but before that, Thielen was the highest target getter. It’s just a really well-rounded group. Irv Smith [Jr.] makes them unique in that they use a bigger guy in some of the third down situations and all that because he’s such a good pass receiver.”

How important is this game? Both teams have clear shots at winning their division and could both be leading their respective divisions by the time this one kicks off on Monday. As things sit today, these would be the two wild card entries with Seattle the No. 5 seed and Minnesota the No. 6 seed. It’s a good thing the league had the foresight to put this one on Monday night, as it now appears to be an epic clash of two talented squads desperate to improve their playoff seeding.

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