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Beating the Seahawks at the CLink

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Cincinnati Bengals v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

The Vikings travel to Seattle for a Monday night matchup that will be pivotal to their postseason path.

Russell Wilson has never lost to the Vikings, and prime time games at home in December are right in his wheelhouse.

Kirk Cousins, on the other hand, has never won a Monday night game in his life. He stands 0-7 in those contests, which includes a Monday night loss in Seattle 51 weeks ago that led to a storm of criticism of Cousins, his signing, and all those responsible for his presence on the Vikings roster. Vikings’ offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was fired after that game.

Ironically, however, it was Russell Wilson who had the worst game of his career in terms of passer rating, coming in at just 37.9.

Be that as it may, the Vikings looked, as Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner said while mic’d during the game, “like they don’t want to be here.” And it showed.

Seattle’s defense won the night, making some key stops while knocking the ball out of Cousins’ hand from behind while throwing which they returned for a touchdown.

Mike Zimmer’s Nemesis

Mike Zimmer has never beaten Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks since becoming head coach of the Vikings. In fact, they’ve handed him some of his most blood-boiling defeats. His first match-up, during the 2015 regular season, was a 38-7 blowout at TCF Bank stadium, taking the Vikings from 8-3 to 8-4. The Vikings still managed to win the NFC North, finishing 11-5 and edging out the Packers at 10-6.

But that led to a rematch against the Seahawks in the wildcard game, in frigid conditions at TCF Bank stadium, which ended in the infamous Blair Walsh missed chip shot.

Then last year in December, the Vikings anemic performance on offense at Seattle proved to be the last straw for Mike Zimmer, and he fired his offensive coordinator the next day.

The main problem for Zimmer in those three match-ups wasn’t Russell Wilson- who they’ve held to his worst passer rating (37.9) and another sub-70 passer rating the last two games.

Instead, it’s been stopping the Seahawks’ ground game and overcoming Seattle’s defense.

In those three games against the Seahawks, the Vikings have averaged less than 8 points per game, and have yet to break into double digits. They’ve scored a total of 3 points in the first half in those three games.

And in 180 minutes of football against the Seahawks over the past three games, the Vikings first touchdown scored by the offense came in minute 179.

At the same time, the Vikings’ defense has allowed an average of 162 rushing yards per game.

In other words, the Seahawks have executed a Mike Zimmer game-plan better than Mike Zimmer: stout defense and pounding the ball on the ground.

So What To Do ?

All this paints a rather bleak picture of the Vikings chances of beating the Seahawks:

  • Mike Zimmer has never beaten the Seahawks as head coach
  • Kirk Cousins has never won on Monday night
  • Russell Wilson has never lost to the Vikings
  • Etc, etc, etc.

And yet this may be the best opportunity the Vikings have to beat the Seahawks at Century Link field, aka the CLink. Here’s why.

Seattle’s Defense Not As Good

It’s been a couple years now since the Legion of Boom was disbanded, and for a while the Seahawks’ defense was able to maintain it’s status as one of the best units in the league.

But this year that’s no longer the case.

Seattle’ defense has plunged to 21st in points allowed and 23rd in yards allowed. Opponents run a very heavy passing offense against the Seahawks, who’ve defended the second-most passing attempts in the league so far.

But against both run and pass, the Seahawks’ defense is ranked 22nd and 20th respectively in yards per attempt.

Part of the reason for the decline is the failure of the Seahawks to adequately replace the losses they’ve sustained over the past couple years as Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Michael Bennett and Frank Clark have departed.

The Seahawks acquired DE Jadeveon Clowney, who may miss the Vikings game as he recovers from a sports-hernia related injury, and DT Jarran Reed, who’s been good but also seems likely miss the Vikings game having re-injured his ankle.

The Seahawks have also acquired a couple former Lions - Quandre Diggs at safety and Ziggy Ansah at defensive end. Both are decent rather than dominant, and are a step down from the days of Earl Thomas and Michael Bennett.

From a PFF grade standpoint, every facet of defense is down over last year - pass rush, tackling, run defense, coverage. But it is tackling that has declined the most, and is the worst aspect of their defense.

Seattle’s defense gives up more big plays on the ground, than through the air. The decline in tackling grade may be at least part of the reason, but it also suggests that if the Vikings can stick with the run, and get the outside zone run going, they could get some chunk plays.

In terms of pass defense, the Seahawks haven’t had the pass rush productivity they’ve enjoyed in previous years, and that along with facing pass-happy offenses has led to a 29th ranking in passing yards allowed, including the 20th ranking in yards per attempt.

What Seattle’s defense does well is generate turnovers. They’re ranked 3rd in takeaways, and 1st in fumble recoveries, so guys like Kirk Cousins and Stefon Diggs - who’ve each lost 3 fumbles this season - will need to focus on ball security.

As always, winning or fighting to a draw in the turnover battle will be key.

Seattle’s Offensive Line Still an Issue

The Seahawks lost their starting center four games ago, and his replacement, Joey Hunt, isn’t very good - particularly in pass protection. His season PFF pass pro grade is 29.9. The rest of the line is mediocre, with overall PFF grades in the mid-50s except LT Duane Brown at 70.1.

If the Vikings can be disciplined in their pass rush and not let Russell Wilson outside the pocket, they should be able to box him up fairly well and force him to more difficult throws in a collapsing pocket, where his height is a disadvantage. Of course that is easier said than done, but the Vikings were fairly successful last time around in containing Wilson, who had his worst passer rating in his career last year against the Vikings.

Seattle’s WRs are a wildcard

Tyler Lockett will likely play for the Seahawks and face off against MacKensie Alexander most often in the slot. Lockett is coming off a shin injury and was also sick this week and didn’t practice much, so it remains to be seen what kind of shape he’ll be in this evening. It should be a pretty good matchup - Alexander has quietly held up well for the Vikings this year.

Outside I’d imagine Xavier Rhodes will face off against the rookie big-bodied D.K. Metcalf, and Trae Waynes against Josh Gordon, or perhaps Lockett in 2WR sets. For the Vikings, the hope is that Rhodes can shut-down the big-bodied rookie receiver in Metcalf, and Waynes can do the same against Josh Gordon, who hasn’t been that productive since joining the Seahawks. That would allow the Vikings to double Lockett, if he’s healthy, as Wilson’s top target and best receiver.

It will be interesting to see if Jayron Kearse sees more action tonight, and if Anthony Harris is able to go (he’s listed as questionable with a groin issue). Harrison Smith seems more likely to play, as he was a full participant in the last practice.

Who Can Establish Their Running Game ?

The bigger issue, perhaps, is shutting down the Seahawks running game. Chris Carson is their workhorse back, but Rashaad Penny has done well recently, so there’s a chance he sees more action tonight.

In any case, which team can establish their running game may be the biggest contest this evening, with the Vikings’ 5th ranked rush defense up against the Seahawks’ 6th ranked rushing attack, and the Vikings 3rd ranked rushing attack against the Seahawks’ 9th ranked rush defense.

It looks like the Vikings may get Linval Joseph back tonight (he’s listed as questionable), so that would help a lot in defending the Seahawks’ ground game. Shamar Stephen is also listed as questionable, but hopefully he can go too. With those two blocking up the middle, Eric Kendricks will be able to roam and help plug up any holes. He’s been elite in his run defense this year, thanks in part to the big guys up front.

On the Seahawks’ side, there are many guys on the defensive line that showed up on the injury report. Interior defenders Jarran Reed and Al Woods are listed as questionable. Woods, with an ankle injury, was limited for Saturday’s practice - the only one this week he participated in. Reed also has an ankle injury, and was limited Friday and Saturday. Jadeveon Clowney, who has a sports hernia-related injury, was limited Friday and Saturday as well, and is officially listed as questionable. I have my doubts whether he’ll play, however. Poona Ford, while not on the final injury list, missed the last two practices with an illness as well.

My guess is that even if most or all of those guys play tonight, none of them will be 100%, which will help the Vikings offensive line. It also could make an up-tempo offense all that more effective, if the Seahawks’ defensive front is struggling with injuries and illness, as it will be all that much more difficult to play full speed against an up-tempo offense.

It will be interesting to see if the Vikings choose to go with an up-tempo offense other than if than if they need to because they’re trailing. Could be a smart move against a banged up Seattle defensive front.

Thielen Out, Irv Smith In ?

With Adam Thielen now listed as out for tonight’s prime time tilt, who replaces his production ? I suspect the Seahawks may have Shaquill Griffen shadow Stefon Diggs, which would leave Bisi Johnson and/or Laquon Treadwell against Tre Flowers. Either could do fine in that matchup, but what about Irv Smith?

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vikings go with more 2 TE sets tonight, particularly if Mycheal Kendricks doesn’t play (he’s listed as questionable with a hamstring injury he suffered in practice this week). He’s their best cover linebacker, and if he can’t go or isn’t 100% with a hammy, that could lead to some mismatches in coverage for either Kyle Rudolph or Irv Smith Jr.. Smith has been getting more snaps of late, so I wouldn’t be surprised if that continues.

Going with more double-TE sets could also help the Vikings outside zone rushing game, perhaps more so than with CJ Ham in at fullback. We’ll see.

Bottom Line

The Vikings have a much better offense than this time last year, when they last played the Seahawks at the CLink. They’re also more focused on the last 10 minutes of the fourth quarter, which is when they lost the game a year ago.

Those two factors, alongside the motivation and experience of losing to the Seahawks last year in a game where they didn’t play well, may help get them over the hump tonight - and clear away more bugaboos that have haunted them against both playing the Seahawks and in prime time on Monday night.

Both likely playoff teams are playing for the chance to win their division against the current division leaders in re-matches later this month - and possibly even a first-round bye. So expect a full-on playoff atmosphere tonight under the prime time lights.

Poll

The Seahawks are 3 point favorites at home tonight against the Vikings. Will the Vikings...

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  • 55%
    Win
    (332 votes)
  • 13%
    Lose but cover the spread
    (79 votes)
  • 31%
    Lose and not cover the spread
    (187 votes)
598 votes total Vote Now