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Seahawks-Vikings preview: Seattle’s strong run defense faces its first real test

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Minnesota Vikings v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

On Sunday Night Football, the 2020 Seattle Seahawks will take on the 2019 Seattle Seahawks, as the you-don’t-have-a-good-enough-defense-to-run-that-often Minnesota Vikings come to town. The Seahawks and Vikings, philosophically and stylistically similar during Pete Carroll and Mike Zimmer’s tenures, now reside on opposite ends of the NFL’s passing revolution. While Seattle has rapidly modernized, passing on 1st and 10 at the 11th highest rate and on 2nd and 7+ at the third-highest rate, Minnesota has doubled down, tied for the fourth-lowest percentage of passes on both 1st and 10 and 2nd and 7+.

For the first time in three consecutive years of primetime meetings, it will, oddly, be a battle of contrasting styles. Here’s what to know.

What the Vikings do well

For all the posturing done in the lede over the Seahawks’ development into a modern offense, here’s the simple thing Minnesota does incredibly well: lean on Dalvin Cook. One of last year’s breakout offensive players has been spectacular in 2020, leading the league in rushing, missed tackles, and yards after contact while ranking first in DYAR and fifth in DVOA.

Despite the Vikings’ pair of dangerous wideouts, they are going to again allow Cook to be the offense’s focal point in Week 5. While Minnesota cannot pass protect at all, as they sit 30th in adjusted sack rate and 24th in pass block win rate, they are the second-ranked run blocking unit by Football Outsiders. The Vikings are going to remain a strong running team in Week 5 and test Seattle’s stout run defense.

Where the Vikings can be exploited

The good news for Minnesota: last week they got rookie cornerback Cameron Dantzler back from injury, as he returned to the starting lineup for the Vikings. The bad news: Dantzler’s third career start will see him across from DK Metcalf often. While Dantzler has the size to matchup with Metcalf, at 6’2”, he’s one of the slowest starting corners in the league. Compounding issues is that, despite his size, Dantzler has relatively short arms (30 5/8”) and isn’t a great press corner. If Dantzler can’t slow down Metcalf off the line or disrupt his releases, the rookie will find himself in a foot race against one of the best deep threats in the league—a matchup he will lose time and time again.

In year two, Metcalf is quickly proving to be one of the most dynamic threats in the entire league. Against Dantzler and Minnesota’s defense, he will have the chance to completely alter the game and tear yet another secondary apart.

Who to know on the Vikings

Imagine trading away one of the league’s best route runners, an incredibly aesthetically pleasing player, only to immediately replace him with a similarly awe-inspiring threat. The Vikings did just that, with Justin Jefferson coming in following Stefon Diggs’ departure.

The former LSU Tigers wideout had a quiet start to his career, with five catches and 70 yards through two games. A Week 3 move, from the slot to the outside, has allowed the rookie to come alive, as Jefferson has totaled 11 catches, 278 yards, and a touchdown over the past two weeks. Jefferson’s emergence has been so encouraging that it looks like Adam Thielen’s tenure as Minnesota’s top wide receiver lasted all of two weeks.

With devastating suddenness as a route runner and the ability to send cornerbacks spinning, Jefferson is exactly the type of receiver who causes the Seahawks’ defense problems. Capable of lining up all across the formation, the rookie has seen a lot of his snaps come on the offense’s left in recent weeks. As a result, he will see plenty of either Quinton Dunbar, who is carrying a knee injury, or Tre Flowers, who is carrying a confidence vacuum. Regardless of who starts, it will be a favorable matchup for Jefferson.

When the Vikings run outside zone, the defense will be tested

The way Seattle defends outside zone has been an obsession of mine in recent years, with the Rams and Cardinals favoring it—and Todd Gurley and Los Angeles finding a ton of joy against the Seahawks in particular. In 2019, Seattle boasted a defensive line well equipped to defend outside zone, with players like Poona Ford, Al Woods, Rasheem Green, and Jadeveon Clowney defending laterally really well.

The Seahawks’ run defense is off to a phenomenal start, giving up an average of 75.7 yards per game as the sixth-ranked run defense by DVOA. However, this will be the first time they will be really tested defending the perimeter as a run defense, having faced Gurley—a shell of his former self—as well as power-heavy Patriots and Cowboys running games, and the Dolphins. Now they will need to defend Cook, who combines awesome explosiveness with speed to turn the corner, and a rushing attack commanded by zone-running mastermind Gary Kubiak.

Seattle has used heavy fronts, with Ford, Jarran Reed, and Bryan Mone or L.J. Collier, often this season. While the addition of Damon Harrison will add to the stout front, the Seahawks will have to utilize their ends in run defense more often in Week 5. When they do so, they will need to maintain a high level.

Why the Seahawks will win

Between Cook’s electrifying ability and the way Kirk Cousins can rely on Jefferson and Thielen, Minnesota will be able to keep pace with Seattle’s offense—even in what should be an explosive night for the trio of Russell Wilson, Tyler Lockett, and Metcalf. However, the Vikings’ determination to keep Cook involved all the way through should gift the Seahawks a few stops, provided they are able to defend the edge effectively. Another “good enough” performance from Seattle’s defense is all that is required for the high-flying offense to lead the Seahawks to 5-0.