The Morning After: Seahawks Leverage Defense for Big Win Versus Vikings
Here we are again. The Seahawks have won a prime time contest in Seattle, and all most people nationally want to talk about is questionable calls by the referees. You know who complains about the officials? Losers. Seattle arguably has the most egregious officiating gripe in NFL history given that a Super Bowl XL official literally came out years later to apologize for what he considered bad calls that cost the Seahawks dearly. Even so, I blame that loss on dropped passes by Jeremy Stevens and injuries to Marquand Manuel, Rocky Bernard, and Andre Dyson. No matter how frustrating bad calls are, there is always a way for a team to control their fate. Anyone who watched the Vikings last night and felt like they were playing winning football until the refs screwed them is delusional. Seattle was, amazingly, a far better team than the Vikings, and the game should have never been close.
I expected the Vikings to give the Seahawks all sorts of fits on offense, especially against the run. I was kinda right, but mostly wrong. Seattle piled up over 200 yards rushing—with over 130 in the first half—as basically every Seahawks rusher had a good day. That was highly encouraging. The Vikings front seven is damn good, and simply could not stop the Seahawks rushing attack. As surprising as that was, the absolute stifling defense the Seahawks displayed was hard to fathom given the performances of the past few weeks.
How on earth do they hold the Kirk Cousins, Adam Thielen, and Stefon Diggs, to zero points and around 100 yards passing until the final drive of the game when they allowed over 400 yards to Nick Mullens on the same field without either of his starting receivers? I think a few things were at play.
Mike Zimmer came into this game hellbent on running more than the Vikings have, and Minnesota appeared to over-correct to the point of ignoring their advantages in the passing game
Ken Norton Jr. unveiled a little used “Bandit” defense with 7 defensive backs on the field. This appeared to confuse Cousins when they did pass, and limit open receivers.
Tackling was exceptional all night and kept the Vikings from keeping drives alive, which limited total number of plays.
The Vikings appeared on the verge of breaking a long run throughout the first half and into the third quarter. The Minnesota coaches likely saw that and felt they were close to a big play on the ground if they stuck with it.
Shaquill Griffin and Tre Flowers played one of their best games of the season
Minnesota came in with the wrong game plan. They focused on their weakness—running the football—against weak Seattle run defense instead of focusing on their strength through the air against a weak pass defense. Diggs and Thielen are their best offensive players. Any plan that minimizes their involvement is flawed. That said, Cook was brought down at least four or five times by a single defender, often by a single arm, when he had nothing but green field in front of him. The Seahawks run defense and tackling was exceptional on this night.
The pass rush also livened in this game. A blitz early by Akeem King leveled Cousins and set a tone that left Cousins uncomfortable the rest of the night. There were not a ton of sacks (2) or QB hits (7), but I would guess there were a ton of pressures. Griffin had two beautiful pass deflections late in the game, including one against Thielen that looked like a certain first down when the ball was in the air. It would be huge to see him solidify his play and gain confidence over these final three games of the season.
But how did I get this far without mentioning the player of the game? George Fant might be the fastest 320-pound man I have ever seen. Coaches throw offensive linemen a bone with an end zone throw now and then. Seattle put Fant in space in the middle of the field and the big fella ran like the wind…until he fell face first into the turf without being touched. If only he had stayed on his feet. Harrison Smith was the having his own personal Thanksgiving celebration when he saw Fant stumble so he only had to touch him instead of tackle him. You think a safety wants any part of that?
Okay, back to the defense. Remember what I said about teams always having a chance to control their fate regardless of the officials?
The Vikings had nine plays of 3rd or 4th and 3 yards or less. They converted just two of those opportunities.
That included only two conversions in five attempts when they needed to only gain a single yard. Look in the mirror, Minnesota. Bobby Wagner will get attention for “cheating,” the Vikings play-by-play announcer called it after the game. He deserves attention for another fantastic game where he was a big part of many of those short-yardage stops. Frank Clark played a nice game as well. The whole defense appeared to play with more energy and swagger than we have seen all year. They gained a lot of confidence in this game, and have games against two of the worst offenses in football in front of them and one game against a great offense in Seattle.
Imagine how they could feel about themselves if they dominate the bad teams and slow down the vaunted Chiefs heading into the playoffs. This was their most complete game of the year when including tackling, coverage, creative scheme, pass pressure, run defense, and opponent. They are fifth in the NFL in scoring defense. Remarkable. Having a coach like Pete Carroll in this era of offense could continue to be one of the Seahawks great advantages.
The offense, on the other hand, was much more mixed. Running the ball was wonderful to see. This was the number one defense in the NFL in limiting explosive rushes, and the Seahawks had three on the night. That matched a season-high against this Vikings defense. Chris Carson was a beast again. He rumbled through the heart of that defense, even trucking big defensive tackle Linval Joseph on one signature play.
Rashaad Penny had another zig-zag run for big yards. More importantly, he ran for tough yards within the design of the play and in repeatable ways. For a big back, he has appeared hesitant to put his pads down earn the tough yards. There was more of that in this game. Even Russell Wilson dusted off his running shoes and had some big runs, including a 40-yard scramble that helped seal the game.
Jordan Simmons has started two games for the Seahawks in place of D.J. Fluker. The first one was against the Rams, with that gruesome defensive line that features Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, and Michael Brockers. The Seahawks rushed for 273 yards. The second game was against that Vikings defense, and the Seahawks ran for 214 yards. That does not mean Simmons is the reason they accomplished those feats. It does mean those feats are possible without Fluker and with Simmons against elite defensive talent. That could have ramifications in the offseason if Fluker decides to ask for a sizable contract.
Wilson and the passing game, however, were not good. The Vikings deserve credit for stellar secondary play. They covered receivers well most of the night and were committed to take away Wilson’s favorite deep ball. They may be onto something with that game plan. Seattle relies on the running game to move the ball down the field, but scores most often through the air, and usually deep down field.
The Vikings dared Seattle to throw underneath. Wilson really hates to check down or to take the underneath throws, especially when the play is designed to go deep. He loves big plays, and that is usually great. If teams start to take away those passes, Brian Schottenheimer and Wilson will need to adjust and punish the defense in the intermediate areas. You cannot take away everything. The Vikings were essentially played late-inning defense from baseball where you take away the extra-base hits, but leave yourself vulnerable for more singles. Seattle needs to play station-to-station, or at least prove they are capable of it.
Wilson had one of his worst moments as a pro quarterback when he chose not to throw a pass away at the 1-yard line with limited time left in the half, and instead scrambled and then threw what should have been a pick-six. It was mind-bogglingly horrible. Rookies in the pre-season rarely make plays that bad. This is the second straight week that Wilson has cost the team at the 1-yard line by taking sacks. His staunch defenders will call it unfair to focus on his mistakes when he is otherwise playing so well. That play can never happen again. It should never happen again. It does not matter that he slipped. It does not matter than he does other things well. He has to eliminate negative plays that are totally under his control. He is smart enough and seasoned enough to know better.
Doug Baldwin missed the game due to an injury. My hope is he takes as much time as he needs to heal. Even if it is the rest of the regular season. No receiver is more capable of helping Seattle attack the intermediate part of the field than Baldwin, except maybe Fant. Rushing Baldwin back would do no good. This team is going to make the playoffs either way. If there is even a chance that rest will help him be ready to perform at his normal level of play, you take it.
The last four weeks have been dizzying. From 4-5 to 8-5. From out of the playoffs with tons of teams fighting for the wild card, to the fifth seed and basically nobody in position to unseat them. Carroll has done one of his finest coaching jobs with this group. They are fun to watch. They have a clear identity, and they are unafraid to play a style of football that most of the league has left behind. Look around and ask yourself which teams the Seahawks are truly not capable of beating. The Saints are the only one that seems pretty darn unlikely. Even that, though, is not out of the question. Dallas beat them with a solid run game that dominated time of possession, deep passing, and good defense. Seattle is capable of reproducing that combination. Regardless of outcome, the Seahawks have reached heights this season nobody in their right mind had reason to expect. I’m just here for the ride.