EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Trying to rebound from their most disappointing loss of the season, the Minnesota Vikings know a challenge awaits this weekend in Seattle.
Many of the improvements Minnesota (5-3) has said it focused on this week will be tested specifically against the Seattle Seahawks (4-4). The strengths for Seattle align with many of the issues the Vikings are trying to correct.
And Seattle has one of the best home-field advantages in the entire league at Century Link Field, perhaps the loudest outdoor stadium in the NFL. The “12th man” for the Seahawks, the boisterous crowd, has forced opponents into a league-high 113 false start penalties since 2005 and Seattle is 3-0 at home this season.
Here are five things to watch Sunday as Minnesota tries overcome many obstacles in Seattle:
1. Can the Vikings cage the beast?
Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, known as Beast Mode, is one of the league’s toughest running backs. The Vikings’ Adrian Peterson and Lynch rank 1-2 in the league in rushing. Peterson has 775 yards this season and Lynch has tallied 757 yards.
Minnesota has allowed two straight opponent’s running backs to eclipse the 100-yard mark and has talked all week about the need for getting back to being one of the league’s top run defenses.
The Vikings have slipped to 16th against the run, yielding 107.6 yards per game, and say the issue has been losing gap control. Defenders haven’t been in their assigned gap and have “tried to do too much” causing a domino effect on run defense. The past two opponents have punished Minnesota’s defense for being out of its gaps with small, quick and elusive backs. Lynch is no small (5-foot-11, 215) back and is known for his punishing running style. But he also broke a 77-yard touchdown run last week. Lynch will be a good test to see if the Vikings have solved their run defense woes.
2. Can Minnesota’s receivers break free from Optimus Prime and friends?
Playing against the Detroit Lions last week and Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson, nicknamed Megatron, Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman offered a bit of trash talk and nicknamed himself Optimus Prime. Sherman and fellow cornerback Brandon Browner have backed up any brash talk this season as perhaps the most physical duo at corner in the NFL. Sherman (6-foot-3, 195) and Browner (6-foot-4, 221) are aggressive at the line of scrimmage and want to disrupt opponents’ timing by jamming receivers and being physical.
The Vikings have talked about their receivers needing more separation from defensive backs, a tricky task this week against Sherman and Browner. Minnesota focused on route running this week and improving the timing between receivers and quarterback Christian Ponder. The speed for receivers Percy Harvin and Jerome Simpson will be important as they try to release quickly from Sherman and Browner and not get knocked off their timing and routes. Seattle also has talented, tough safeties in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. The Vikings’ passing game has struggled and faces another stiff test against the Seahawks.
3. The other side of the passing game.
Minnesota has talked about all phases of the passing offense needing to come together, and the offensive line needs to improve as well. Facing blitz-heavy schemes from opponents in recent weeks, the Vikings have allowed Ponder to be sacked 10 times in the past three games. Seattle might not throw many blitzes in Minnesota’s direction, partially because they haven’t needed to blitz to cause pressure.
Seahawks defensive ends Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin have actually tallied more sacks this season than Minnesota’s duo of Jared Allen and Brian Robison. Clemons is tied with Allen for seventh in the league with seven sacks. Irvin, a rookie who was considered a reach when Seattle selected him in the first round of this year’s draft, has 4.5 sacks and has offered a good compliment on the other side of Clemons. Minnesota’s own first-round pick, left tackle Matt Kalil, will have his hands full against Clemons. Right tackle Phil Loadholt will see starter Red Bryant in early downs, but Irvin comes in on pass-rushing situations and will test Loadholt with his speed moves.
4. Does familiarity breed containment?
The Vikings know two big aspects of Seattle’s offense very well. Top receiver Sidney Rice spent his first four NFL seasons in Minnesota and made the move to the Seahawks last offseason along with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. Bevell’s offense with Seattle looks similar to many of his years with the Vikings. The Seahawks have a strong running game and an inconsistent passing attack. Bevell might have a few new tricks up his sleeve, but Minnesota largely knows what to expect. The question is stopping it. Seattle has the 31st ranked passing game in the NFL, but Lynch and the running game is ranked eighth.
Rice is finally healthy again and putting together his best season since his big Pro Bowl season in 2009 for the Vikings. Rice is once again becoming a big-play weapon and Minnesota will have to contain the 6-foot-4 receiver without the services of tall, physical cornerback Chris Cook, who broke his arm last week. Cook played a big role in shutting down opponents’ taller receivers like Johnson and Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald this season. Without Cook, Minnesota will start either rookie Josh Robison (5-foot-10) or A.J. Jefferson (6-foot-1). Coach Leslie Frazier was strategically withholding his decision on who would start, but said it was “pretty clear” in his mind. Robinson has spent the season as the third cornerback in the nickel role, but maybe Jefferson’s size will come into play against Rice.
5. Another rookie quarterback.
The first two losses this season for the Vikings came against the top two picks in this year’s draft, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck and Washington’s Robert Griffin III. This week they see another of the five rookie quarterbacks starting for their teams this season, in Seattle’s Russell Wilson, a third-round pick out of Wisconsin. Wilson isn’t wowing with the big numbers being put up by Luck or Griffin, but he’s come through in many clutch situations for the Seahawks. He has an 82.4 quarterback rating, has completed 61.4 percent of his passes and thrown 10 touchdowns to eight interceptions.
Wilson has come up with big plays at key times, but he’s also been inconsistent. He has struggled when pressured, so Allen and Robison will play a big role. For all his athleticism, Wilson is only 5-foot-11. He’s only had four passes batted down this season, tied for 12th in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. But if Minnesota can create pressure on Wilson and get in his face, it might be able to force him into mistakes. Mistakes could mean the Vikings might beat their first rookie quarterback of the season.