The Vikings have an opportunity to make a statement in front of a national audience and win their second game in a row, but it’s going to take an outstanding all-around performance. Fresh off of a huge win in Houston that ended their season-opening three-game losing streak, the Vikings are in Seattle to take on a 4-0 Seahawks team led by MVP frontrunner Russell Wilson.
Ahead of the big game, I teamed up with SI Seahawks reporter Corbin Smith to break down everything Vikings and Seahawks ahead of Sunday Night Football. We discussed the quarterbacks, the running backs, the defenses, what to expect from this game, and more.
Corbin Smith (CS): Interception totals don’t always tell the whole story. Kirk Cousins has thrown six picks through four games, but based on film study, it doesn’t look like all of those were necessarily his fault. But he’s had a difficult start to the season. How much is that due to changes in personnel around him? And how much has the loss of offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski played a role in those struggles?
Will Ragatz (WR): You’re right that Cousins doesn’t exactly deserve to have six interceptions already; two of them have come on Hail Mary attempts and another bounced off of a receiver’s hands. Still, it hasn’t been the start to 2020 that Cousins and the Vikings were hoping for. He struggled for most of the season-opening loss to the Packers and then played probably the worst game of his NFL career in Week 2 against the Colts. Since then, he’s mostly been the same guy the Vikings saw last year. The emergence of rookie receiver Justin Jefferson over the past two weeks has been huge for Cousins, who was hurt by the lack of a second reliable target in the passing game early on. Jefferson already looks like a capable replacement for Stefon Diggs and will be a big part of the offense on Sunday night. The loss of Stefanski also played a role in the offense’s slow start, as it looked like Gary Kubiak was a bit rusty as a play-caller. But Kubiak has improved over the past two weeks as well, dialing up more play-action shots for Cousins and utilizing more motion on offense. After an up-and-down four games, Cousins is third in the NFL in yards per attempt and tenth in PFF grade.
The Seahawks are finally letting Russ cook, huh? He’s always been fantastic, but Wilson seems to have gone to a different level this year. Can his red-hot start simply be explained by an adjustment in offensive philosophy and the star turn of DK Metcalf, or is there more to it?
CS: You hit the hammer on the nail. Wilson has been an elite talent for several years now, but the Seahawks have remained steadfast in running the ball with high frequency, particularly on early downs. And there were some legitimate reasons behind that, including a poor offensive line that wasn’t built to be able to protect the star quarterback for 40 drop backs or more per game. But this offseason, general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll made several personnel moves in free agency and the draft that signaled a shift was coming. They went out and signed tight end Greg Olsen as well as receiver Phillip Dorsett to give Wilson additional weapons and then replaced Germain Ifedi with a far more competent pass protector at right tackle in Brandon Shell. They then used a third round pick on guard Damien Lewis, who has been fantastic through four games as a run blocker and pass protector. With those changes and ongoing discussions between Carroll, Wilson, and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer throughout this wild offseason, the stage was set for Wilson to cook and the continued emergence of DK Metcalf as a top-flight receiver has made it even easier for him to dice up opposing secondaries.
It’s a passing league – but the Vikings are one of the few teams out there that seems to do much better when the offense revolves around Dalvin Cook and the run game. They’ve been able to find a lot of success rushing on early downs, particularly the last two weeks. What makes Cook so special and how critical will getting him going be to beat the Seahawks?
WR: Cook is making a serious case as the best running back in the NFL this year. He leads the league in rushing yards, rushing TDs, missed tackles forced, and PFF rushing grade, to name a few. The Vikings’ recently-extended star has a rare combination of acceleration, agility, vision, and power, and almost never seems to let the first defender he encounters bring him down. But the second part of your question is tricky to answer. The Vikings run the ball on early downs in neutral game situations more than any other team in the league, which is a reflection of the personalities and philosophies of Mike Zimmer and Kubiak. The issue is that all of the analytics show that running the ball is far less efficient than passing it. That’s what was at the heart of the #LetRussCook movement. If the Vikings are going to keep up in a high-scoring game this weekend, they need to air it out to Jefferson and Adam Thielen. That’s particularly true considering how poorly the Seahawks’ pass defense has played and how stout they’ve been against the run. Cook obviously needs to be part of the game plan, but if the Vikings are going to win this game it’ll happen through the air.
Chris Carson has never been known as much of a receiving threat out of the backfield, but he’s on pace for a career year in receiving yards and has already set a career-high with three touchdown catches. Is that something he has specifically worked on? And have the Seahawks made a concerted effort to get Carson more catches or is it just a product of an offense that has become more pass-happy?
CS: As the back will tell you right to your face, Carson believes he has some of the best hands on the Seahawks roster and stats suggest he’s got a point. He’s posted a career 83 percent catch rate, including reeling in 15 out of 16 targets from Wilson this season. In 2019, he caught a career-high 37 receptions on 47 targets for a pair of scores, so he’s always been a reliable receiver and became much more involved in that capacity last season. This year’s production shouldn’t be surprising and considering how much Schottenheimer emphasized including Seattle’s backs in the passing game prior to last year, I don’t think the team’s overall shift to throwing the ball with higher frequency has had much to do with his increased production.
Going into the season, I expected Minnesota to have one of the best pass rushes in the NFL. Unfortunately, Danielle Hunter now looks to be done for 2020. Everson Griffen is gone. As a result, even after trading for Yannick Ngakoue, they have the second-fewest quarterback hits as a team per Pro Football Reference. Aside from Hunter’s injury, what’s gone wrong and which players need to step up to make up for their losses up front?
WR: Hunter’s neck injury in training camp was a devastating blow for this pass rush. He’s one of the most dominant edge rushers in the league and was primed for another huge season. With Griffen choosing to sign with the Cowboys in August, the Vikings have been without both of their starting defensive ends from the past few years. Without the trade for Ngakoue, this pass rush would be even worse. The former Jaguars star needed some time to shake the rust, but he had two sacks against the Texans last week and is up to four (including two forced fumbles) in the past three games. The other defensive end is Ifeadi Odenigbo, who is still searching for his first sack of the season but has posted five pressures in back-to-back games. The real issue with Minnesota’s pass rush is that they have no one who can create interior pressure. Defensive tackle is a major weakness of this roster. They would love to get more out of guys like Jaleel Johnson and Armon Watts, because it just hasn’t been happening for either one so far.
The Seahawks’ offensive line ranges from 35-year old Duane Brown at left tackle to 23-year old rookie Damien Lewis at right guard. How has that unit looked so far? And with top two picks Jordyn Brooks and Darrell Taylor hurt, have any rookies other than Lewis contributed in the first quarter of the season?
CS: As I touched on earlier, Lewis has been one of the biggest bright spots for the Seahawks, instantly stepping into the starting lineup and thriving at the right guard spot. He’s earned a 74.0 grade from Pro Football Focus for his efforts and along with opening up running lanes for Carson and Carlos Hyde, he’s surrendered just one sack in pass protection. Looking at the rest of a much-improved offensive line, Brown hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. In fact, he may be playing his best football since Seattle traded for him midway through the 2017 season and if he can stay healthy, he has a chance to be an All-Pro for the second time in three years. Ethan Pocic has been a pleasant surprise replacing Justin Britt at his natural position snapping to Wilson at center, Shell has been a solid upgrade over Ifedi, and Mike Iupati remains a serviceable veteran at the other guard spot.
As far as Seattle’s rookie class, Lewis has far and away been their best through the quarter pole, but rookie receiver Freddie Swain has caught at least one pass in every game and has five receptions for 83 yards and a touchdown thus far. After being a healthy scratch the first two weeks of the season – still a head-scratcher – defensive end Alton Robinson has provided a spark on the defensive line with a sack and a pair of tackles for loss the past two weeks, opening the door for more playing time moving forward.
Minnesota blew up its cornerback group for the most part this offseason. Xavier Rhodes, Mackenzie Alexander, and Trae Waynes all joined other teams. A first round pick was used on Jeff Gladney. Holton Hill and Mike Hughes are back. They also have Cam Dantzler, another rookie, who has played significant snaps. What has been your overall impression of this group so far and how concerned are you about how they match up with Seattle’s receivers?
WR: It’s been a difficult start for the Vikings’ young, rebuilt cornerback group, but they’re trending upwards after a solid showing in Houston. Somehow, it looks like the Vikings will have their fifth different CB trio in five games due to various injuries. Hill is dealing with a foot injury, so it’ll likely be the rookies Dantzler and Gladney on the outside with Hughes in the slot against the Seahawks. I’m high on both of the rookies, but this is as tough of a matchup as it gets. Dantzler was a breakout star in training camp and has a ton of talent, but he’ll be giving up two inches and 40 pounds to Metcalf when those two are lined up across from each other. Everyone the Vikings have played at corner has gotten burned for a deep pass play or two so far, which is extremely concerning against Wilson and his trio of speedy receivers. David Moore had a long touchdown catch against the Vikings last year and is the type of player who has given this secondary trouble so far.
Heading into Week 5, Seattle’s defense was second in the league with six interceptions, including two by former practice squad safety Ryan Neal. Neal is obviously no Jamal Adams, but are there reasons to believe his excellent play is sustainable? Takeaways aside, the Seahawks’ pass defense is still giving up over 400 yards per game. Do Shaquill Griffin and the rest of the cornerback group have any shot at slowing down Thielen and Jefferson?
CS: There are few stories better in the NFL than when a practice squad player comes out of nowhere and plays at a high level as Neal has the past couple of weeks. It’s a small sample size, but having attended the majority of Seattle’s training camp practices, I was impressed by what I saw from the versatile defender on the practice field and if the preseason wasn’t axed, he may have made the team coming out of camp. Who knows if he will continue to play well on Sunday and he’s obviously not Adams, but at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, he has the size and athleticism to match up well with bigger receivers and he’s shown the past few weeks he enjoys delivering big hits as well.
This secondary has been a nightmare to watch for most of the season and this matchup is certainly a concerning one, but there’s reason to believe better days are ahead for a unit that doesn’t lack talent. Without a normal camp or a preseason, the Seahawks were trying to break in two new starters and chemistry issues have been obvious, particularly with missed communication. Injuries have also played a part in the struggles defending the pass, as cornerback Quinton Dunbar has missed the past two games and Adams will miss his second straight game on Sunday. With that said, Dunbar has an excellent chance to return against the Vikings and his counterpart Griffin is coming off his finest game as a pro last week. This is great news, as Tre Flowers has been torched the past two games and having both projected starters back out there together at least gives them a fighting chance at slowing down two outstanding receivers in Thielen and Jefferson.
These two teams play every year it seems like – and the games always are bizarre in some capacity – which makes trying to predict things very tricky. That said, how do you think this game plays out? What do the Vikings have to do to pull the road upset?
WR: Three straight years with a prime time game in Seattle between these two non-divisional foes is a major scheduling oddity. It feels weird that this one is on Sunday night and not Monday! The 2018 matchup was a sloppy mess of a 21-7 Seahawks victory that got Vikings OC John DeFilippo fired. I expect this game to be a lot more like last year’s contest, which Seattle won 37-30. But instead of the dominant running game that the Seahawks employed in that game, they’ll come out firing through the air like they have been every week. Two explosive passing attacks going against two exploitable secondaries is a recipe for a shootout. The Vikings need to keep pace with a big day from Kirk Cousins, and they need guys like Ngakoue and Odenigbo to put pressure on Wilson. They probably also need a few bounces or calls to go their way if they’re going to slay the giant and win this game.
The Seahawks are 4-0 and the Vikings are 1-3. The game’s in Seattle (although that matters a lot less in 2020). On the surface, it doesn’t seem like there’s much reason to be concerned about an upset here. But is there anything you’ve seen from the Vikings that gives you a bit of pause when predicting the outcome?
CS: While I expect Seattle’s secondary to be better by default with Dunbar re-entering the lineup and believe that group will perform at a much higher level as the season progresses, that’s ultimately where I think Carroll’s squad remains most vulnerable and Minnesota has the weapons on the outside in Thielen and Jefferson to take advantage. This is particularly true because of the Seahawks’ chronic pass rushing woes, which has put their cornerbacks and safeties on an island trying to cover for extended periods of time. If they can’t get consistent pressure on Cousins, the Vikings will be able to put points on the board in bunches, especially if Cook gets rolling on the ground. Last year’s game between these two teams looked a lot like all four games the Seahawks have played this year and like you, I anticipate that trend will continue in another high-scoring, back-and-forth affair. With Wilson under center, Seattle should be favored but there’s absolutely the potential for an upset here.
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