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Vikings at Seahawks Preview: The Cook-Off

Russell Wilson has been cooking up a storm in Seattle. Can Minnesota bring the necessary heat on Sunday night?

Syndication: Palm Beach Post
Does the Vikings struggling defense have any shot of slowing down Wilson and the red-hot Seahawks offense?
Allen Eyestone via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Seattle Seahawks are off to a 4-0 start for the first time since their 2013 Super Bowl title season. The record alone isn’t all that noteworthy, because winning a lot of football games is nothing new for this franchise. No NFC team has more wins or a better point differential over the past decade. Seattle has made the playoffs in eight of the past ten seasons and looks well on their way to qualifying again this year.

When you look into how the Seahawks finished the first quarter of the season unscathed, then it becomes interesting. After leaning on their lock-down defense for years, the artists formerly known as the Legion of Boom went from the best thing around to laughably obsolete faster than burned CD mixes. The Seahawks are last in yards, passing yards, and yards per drive allowed. They have allowed at least 415 yards in each of their four contests. Their defensive expected points added has been -7 or worse in each game, meaning the defense is performing at least a touchdown worse than expected given the down, distance, and field position.

So how exactly are the Seahawks pulling this off despite their defensive shortcomings? It can all be explained with a single three-word catchphrase:

Let. Russ. Cook.

The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin had an article on Tuesday outlining how the Seahawks were historically reluctant to pass on early downs, despite mountains of analytic evidence to the contrary. And, you know, the fact that Russell Wilson is on the team and he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the league. The “Let Russ Cook” Twitter meme was born, pleading for Seattle to utilize Wilson more. This season, the meme has transformed into a fundamental change in philosophy for Head Coach Pete Carroll and Offensive Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. The Seahawks are passing much more often on early downs and the early returns have been eye-popping. Baldwin cited how Seattle is passing on first and second down 12% more than expected based on game situation thus far. Wilson has thrived and then some; he has been the best statistical passer in the NFL through four games. He is currently leading the NFL in touchdowns, completion percentage, adjusted yards per attempt, and quarterback rating. Wilson has been insanely effective passing outside the numbers this season according to NFL Research. Russ isn’t just cooking with his expanded role—he’s a 3-star Michelin chef.

Even the best chefs can’t reach their potential without using good ingredients, and Seattle certainly has plenty to throw in the pot. Tyler Lockett is one of the better slot receivers in the league and can hurt you lining up outside as well. Cagey veteran tight end and one-time Vikings scout/TV announcer Greg Olsen is having a solid first year in Seattle. David Moore is a deep threat that already has two long touchdowns this season. But nobody poses matchup problems quite like the player that answers the question “what would it look like if Danielle Hunter played receiver?”—second-year star DK Metcalf.

Metcalf has been a big play factory this season. He is tied with Stefon Diggs for the league lead in receiving yards despite being tied for 26th in targets and tied for 43rd in receptions. (He’d also be tied with Lockett and Adam Thielen for third in touchdowns if it wasn’t for that bone-headed play against Dallas.) The knock on Metcalf coming out of college was that he was a one-trick pony and didn’t have much of a route tree to speak of. This season, he’s getting open for big plays using some surprisingly good route running to go along with his comic book size, strength, and speed. The Vikings rank dead last in rate of explosive pass plays allowed; Wilson and Metcalf are a huge threat to roast Minnesota’s secondary Sunday night.

While letting Russ cook is relatively new, Russ cooking the Vikings is not a phenomena unique to this season. Including the Blair Walsh Game (sorry for the reminder), Wilson is 6-0 in his career against the Vikings with eleven touchdowns, only three interceptions, and a 104.6 quarterback rating. In those six games, the Seahawks have won by an average of 14 points per game (and yes, that includes the one-point victory in that Blair Walsh Game I just won’t stop f***ing talking about already). We might have to start calling him Russell Wilf-son with how much he has owned the Vikings over the years.

The only silver lining to Wilson’s dominance of the Vikings is that his personal performances haven’t been that great. He has averaged only 220 total yards in those six contests. Most of Seattle’s wins were due in large part to the Seahawks defense dominating a comically inept Vikings offense time and again. Of course neither defense is their teams’ respective strength this season, so it’s highly doubtful that Wilson will be held in statistical check this time around.

Even if Wilson’s passing stats see an unsurprising uptick, don’t be surprised if the Seahawks run a bit more than they have been this week. The ground game has certainly worked for Seattle against Minnesota in the past. The Vikings have allowed the second lowest rate of explosive plays on the ground this season, but they’re also dead last in the league at run stop win rate. They’re basically the Leroy Hoard of run defense.

Part of that is by design; Zimmer’s defensive linemen are instructed to occupy gaps and prevent big gains over trying to make plays in the backfield. But there’s still a chance Seattle could run a bit more on early downs Sunday night to break the early tendencies they have shown and replicate last year’s game where they ran for over 200 yards against the Vikings. Seattle’s revamped offensive line has jumped from 20th to 6th in PFF run blocking grade and from 16th to 11th in adjusted line yards this season. Chris Carson is finding a bit more room to run now that the Seahawks are mixing up the play calling.

It appears that the Seahawks are poised to score a good amount of points even if the Vikings defense builds upon the incremental improvements they showed in Houston last week. Thankfully, the Vikings should be well-equipped to engage in a shootout with Seattle. The offense topped 400 yards for the second straight week in Houston. The terrific triumvirate of Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, and Justin Jefferson have amassed 778 yards from scrimmage over the past two games. Arif Hasan outlined how historically great Jefferson’s first four games have been. Jefferson has done just about everything you could ask from a young wide receiver from release to route to catch point.

There is no reason to believe it won’t continue this week; the matchup for Jefferson and Thielen is ideal. JJ Zachariason charted how the Seahawks have already allowed 500 more yards to wide receivers than any other team.

The Vikings have the highest rate of explosive plays on offense in the league, ranking third in percentage of runs that go for ten or more yards and first in passes that go for 15 or more yards. With star safety Jamal Adams sitting out another week, there should be plenty of opportunity for Kirk Cousins to find receivers for big gains. Cousins has been far from perfect this season, but he made some impressive throws against the Texans. A huge 3rd & 10 pass threaded between defenders to Jefferson followed by this incredible completion to Kyle Rudolph while throwing off his back foot was about as good as you’re going to get for a crucial two-play sequence.

The throw to Rudolph had to be incredible because Cousins faced immediate pressure up the middle, which is an all too familiar sensation for the Vikings quarterback. Luckily, pressuring the quarterback isn’t the strong suit for Seattle that it has been in years past. In fact, neither team has excelled at rushing the passer this season. The Vikings and Seahawks rank 30th and 31st respectively in PFF pass rush grade. Both teams are in the bottom ten when it comes to frequency of pressures per opponent dropback as well. That said, defensive tackle Jarran Reed had a season-high six pressures against the Vikings last year. With how awful Dru Samia has been this season—dead last in pass blocking, run blocking, and overall PFF grade among 70+ qualifying guards—there is a constant risk of potential big plays getting blown up before they start.

The Samia sinkhole has been rough to watch, but there have been glimmers of hope along the Vikings offensive line too. Garrett Bradbury is having a solid second season at center, especially when it comes to blocking for Cook and Alexander Mattison. Bradbury delivered key blocks on Cook’s first touchdown and Mattison’s score. The Vikings center is the 9th highest graded player at his position by PFF this season and is starting to show signs of why the Vikings drafted him in the first round last year.

On the occasions when the blocking isn’t as ideal, it’s nice to know that Cook can create extra yards out of nowhere so often. The league’s leading rusher ranks first in defense-adjusted yards above replacement and broken tackles, along with top five classifications in yards after contact per carry and PFF’s Elusive Rating metric. I know the popular adage is that running backs don’t matter, but Cook doesn’t matter the least out of any back in the league. His involvement in the offense is crucial to the Vikings success. If they can consistently feed Cook and keep Wilson off the field, they’ll have a chance to steal the victory. If Cook is marginalized becuase they’re constantly chasing like the first two games against the Packers and Colts, they won’t stand a chance.

With all the big-play offense and porous defense on both sides of the ball, just about everyone expects this game to be high scoring. The over/under for total points scored on Sunday night currently sits at an absurdly high 57.5. Of course, when everyone is convinced that a game will go a certain way, it often goes the opposite. Maybe this game somehow turns into a 16-12 rock fight instead of a high-flying shootout.

I still envision both offenses finding a lot of success on Sunday night. There is certainly a path for a Vikings win: control the clock, take care of the ball, limit the number of possessions, and continue the bend but don’t break tendencies on third down and red zone defense. Seahawks field goals won’t necessarily be a bad thing as long as the offense can continue their recent run of form.

I don’t know if they’ll be able to check enough of those boxes on Sunday night though. The lack of fans will make the idea of a Vikings upset in their third annual trip to CenturyLink Field more palatable, but I think they’ll come up a bit short trying to match Seattle’s firepower. Playing better over the past two games doesn’t necessarily translate to beating one of the NFC’s best teams on the road.

And if the Vikings drop to 1-4, their season might be cooked.

Prediction

Seahawks 34, Vikings 27


And now for the rest of my Week 5 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

Buccaneers over BEARS

Unless Chicago can find a way to hypnotize Nick Foles into always believing that he’s in a playoff game, I don’t think they can keep up with the Bucs.

FALCONS over Panthers

If it takes me picking against Carolina every week for Teddy Bridgewater to thrive, then so be it.

Bills over TITANS

Feels like this game probably isn’t going to be played. And if it isn’t played, then there might be a chance that the Titans would have to forfeit for breaking COVID-19 protocols last week. I was going to pick Buffalo either way, but that possibility solidifies it.

RAVENS over Bengals

Congratulations on your first NFL win, Joe Burrow! Now you get to visit Baltimore and take on their blitz-happy defense with your offensive line that has a worse pass blocking grade than the Vikings. Enjoy!

CHIEFS over Raiders

The only things that could stop Kansas City right now are injuries or COVID-19. Unfortunately the latter seems to be a very real possibility, but for now I’ll stick to the Chiefs continuing to roll through the rest of the league.

Rams over FOOTBALL TEAM

The Kyle Allen Era has officially begun in Washington. It’s funny to laugh at this list of 30 quarterbacks that have started for Washington since 1993...until you realize that seven of them have also started for the Vikings.

Cardinals over JETS

Arizona has come crashing back to Earth over the past two weeks, but they still aren’t “lose to the Jets” bad. But wait...GOOD GOD, THAT’S JOE FLACCO’S MUSIC! Will someone please explain how Adam Gase said it isn’t fair to throw Sam Darnold back out there ten days after hurting his shoulder last Thursday, but it was just fine ten minutes after hurting his shoulder last Thursday?

STEELERS over Eagles

Pittsburgh pressures the quarterback on nearly half of their opponents’ dropbacks this season and Philadelphia keeps losing linemen and receivers to injuries. I don’t think this is going to end well for Carson Wentz.

TEXANS over Jaguars

Addition by subtraction. You’re free, Deshaun Watson. I mean, the team that GM Bill O’Brien left you still sucks pretty bad, but you’re free of Head Coach Bill O’Brien.

49ERS over Dolphins

San Francisco might be getting a bit healthier with the possible returns of Jimmy Garoppolo, Richard Sherman, and Raheem Mostert this week. I’d feel a lot better picking them if I knew they were coming back, but it’s also only the Dolphins, so I’ll lean on the side of optimism.

Colts over BROWNS

Is it weird that I’m legitimately excited about this matchup? The Week 2 loss in Indianapolis looks slightly less embarrassing with each successive team the Colts defense shuts down, and Kevin Stefanski is doing some really fun stuff with Cleveland’s offense. This should actually be a pretty intriguing game to watch.

COWBOYS over Giants

I’m making this my Survivor Pool pick of the week, now 4-0 on the season after the Rams finally closed out against the Giants last week. I know this is a bit risky. But if the Cowboys lose at home to drop to 1-4 against a previously winless team that employs the former head coach that was supposedly the root of most of their problems, the schadenfreude would more than make up for the disappointment of losing my pick.

PATRIOTS over Broncos

Cam Newton or not, Brett Rypien isn’t beating a Bill Belichick game plan on the road.

SAINTS over Chargers

The reports of the Saints’ demise appear to be exaggerated for now. So can my fantasy teams please have Michael Thomas back?

Last week: 10-5
Season so far: 41-21-1