Fresh off an extended break after playing on Thursday night, the Minnesota Vikings are looking to extend momentum on Sunday at Seattle.
The last time Minnesota had an extended break with the Week 5 bye, the Vikings (2-7) returned with three straight losses. Their return this week is not an easy way to come back, facing the best team in the NFC in the Seahawks (9-1).
There are many storylines attached to this week’s game with the familiarity of both teams. Here are five things to watch as Minnesota head to the Northwest in Seattle’s raucous CenturyLink Field:
1. Familiar faces
The two teams know each other very well and it’s not just because of last year’s game in Seattle, a 30-20 Vikings’ loss. Minnesota and the Seahawks have been intertwined for years because of their personnel and coaching. It started in 2006 when the Vikings’ signed Steve Hutchinson away from Seattle with the infamous “poison pill” contract, a move that prompted the Seahawks to counter the same way and sign Nate Burleson away from the Minnesota.
Seattle has become Winter Park West over the years. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is a few stops removed, but was an assistant coach with the Vikings from 1985-89. Seattle Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell held the same position with Minnesota from 2006-10. The Seahawks also have former Vikings Percy Harvin, Sidney Rice (out for the year with a knee injury), Tarvaris Jackson, Heath Farwell and kicker Steven Hauschka, who was in training camp with Minnesota in 2008. The Vikings have former Seattle tight end John Carlson.
2. His first chance
No other connection will gain more attention this week than that of Harvin, who was traded to the Seahawks this offseason after four productive but unsettled years with Minnesota. Harvin is one of the top offensive playmakers in the NFL, but had worn out his welcome with the Vikings, who decided to part ways with their mercurial receiver when Seattle offered a first-round pick (which was turned into Xavier Rhodes).
Coincidentally, Harvin will be making his season debut for Seattle after undergoing hip surgery to repair a torn labrum. Harvin will be plenty motivated to face his former team after feeling he was mistreated and misused while in Minnesota. There are fewer game breakers with Harvin’s talent. The Vikings know well what Harvin is capable of, but aren’t 100 percent sure how he will be used by the Seahawks. Harvin is expected to be somewhat limited in his first game back.
3. Unleash the beasts
Sunday’s game will feature two of the most productive and strongest NFL running backs. It’s the “Beast Mode” Marshawn Lynch against Minnesota’s beast, Adrian Peterson. Since 2011, Peterson leads the NFL with 3,853 rushing yards and Lynch is second with 3,665 yards. Peterson has a league-leading 33 rushing touchdowns to Lynch’s second-place total of 30. Both backs are known for their physical running style, though Peterson has better breakaway speed than Lynch. Lynch is second in the league with 871 rushing yards this season and Peterson is fourth with 786 yards rushing.
The two entered the league as first-round picks in 2007 with Peterson drafted No. 7 overall and Lynch falling five picks later. Peterson said the two have trained together. Both have well-earned nicknames and both defenses have a tall task ahead. Minnesota ranks 17th against the run with Lynch leading Seattle’s second-ranked rushing attack. Peterson, and the Vikings’ 17th-ranked rushing offense, faces the Seahawks’ 15th ranked run defense.
4. Getting healthy
The injury reports turned favorably for both teams this week. Minnesota had so many injuries last week it didn’t even have a full game day active roster suited up for the win against Washington. The Vikings had nine players injured and out of uniform last week, not including safety Harrison Smith, who is on injured reserve with the designation to return. Minnesota should be getting at least six of those players back. Tight end Kyle Rudolph is still out and defensive tackle Letroy Guion wasn’t able to return from a chest injury and is listed as out. Running back Matt Asiata is doubtful with a shoulder injury.
The good news is the Vikings should be getting starting defensive backs Chris Cook and Jamarca Sanford back, as well as starting offensive linemen Phil Loadholt and Charlie Johnson. Also expected to return are tight end Rhett Ellison and defensive tackle Fred Evans. Quarterback Christian Ponder, who left last week’s game after dislocating his left, non-throwing shoulder should be ready to make his fourth straight start. Peterson was held out of practice with a groin injury but is listed as probable and is expected to play.
Seattle will be without a vital piece in cornerback Brandon Browner. Yet, of the 16 players listed on the injury report this week, 15 were full participants in practice and should play Sunday. Defensive tackle Tony McDaniel is questionable. Not included in those is standout left tackle Russell Okung, who has been on injured reserve with the designation to return. Okung is eligible to be activated for the game and is considered a game-time decision. Okung, out since Week 2, is just one member of Seattle’s offense line set to return. All-Pro center Max Unger, who has missed three of the last seven games, will return, as does right tackle Brent Giacomini, who’s been out since Week 3. And of course Harvin is making his much-awaited return.
5. A defensive change
Through Minnesota’s 2-7 season, the continued issues at quarterback have received a lot of scrutiny, deservedly. But the Vikings’ defense has to shoulder a lot of the blame as well, costing the team at least three wins with late collapses. Maybe Minnesota found something in the second half against Washington though.
Coach Leslie Frazier said defensive coordinator Alan Williams gave an impassioned speech at halftime and challenged his players, particularly after poor tackling. The Vikings then held Washington to just three points in the second half, outscoring the Redskins 20-3 to come from behind in the win. After giving up 288 yards and 24 points in the first half, Minnesota held Washington to 145 yards and three points in the second half.
Williams and the players downplayed the significance of the halftime speech, but something changed. And the Vikings get back two starters on defense in Cook and Sanford, who have missed the past two games and three games each this season. Seattle has the league’s 11th-ranked offense in yards gained and sixth in points per game, with the second-ranked rushing offense and 24th passing offense, and get back four key pieces in Harvin, Okung, Unger and Giacomini.