This week’s edition of Monday Night Football is the second-consecutive night game between playoff contenders from the NFC West and NFC North. This time, the team from the West is hosting, and hoping for a better result than the Rams had against the Bears on Sunday night.
The Seahawks, current holders of the No. 5 seed with their 7-5 record and owners of a three-game winning streak, host the Vikings, currently occupying the No. 6 slot with their 6-5-1 record. This game could hold massive importance to the playoff picture, especially if the Vikes can’t come away with a win.
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Both squads are likely playing only for wild-card spots right now given how far behind their respective division leaders they sit, but owning the tiebreaker here could be huge in determining not only who plays in Chicago or Dallas or New Orleans or L.A., but in case another contender jumps into the mix and only one of the two teams actually heads to the postseason.
This should be a fun one, so here’s what you should be looking out for on the field.
The Seahawks are on a three-game winning streak, but their run of terrific offensive performances really started with their 36-31 loss to the Rams back in Week 10. During that four-game span, Russell Wilson has played as well as any quarterback in football.
He’s completed 71 of 105 passes (67.6 percent) for 925 yards (8.8 per attempt) and 11 touchdowns, and has not been intercepted even once. That’s good for an absurd 130.1 passer rating, and Wilson’s contributions haven’t stopped there, as he’s added 127 additional yards on 21 carries. His carries-per-game average is also up to from 3.0 during the first eight games of the season to 4.2 during the past four, while his yards-per-carry average has jumped from 4.9 to 6.1 as well.
Incredibly, Wilson is on pace to throw his fewest number of passes since his second year in the NFL, but also to set a career high in touchdown passes. After leading the NFL with 34 TD tosses last year, Wilson is not close to Patrick Mahomes for the NFL lead this season, but he does lead the league in touchdown rate — the percentage of his throws that have turned into scores. And he’s racked up that rate while also tying his career-best 1.5 percent interception rate.
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On Monday night, Wilson faces a pass defenses that has for the most part been much better in recent weeks than it was during the early part of the season. And he seems at least somewhat likely to do so without the services of his top wide receiver, Doug Baldwin, who is listed as questionable with a hip injury but is widely expected not to play.
And that’s not great for the Seahawks because the Vikings have been most vulnerable through the air to interior receivers, tight ends, and running backs, and Baldwin is clearly the best option Seattle has that fits that description. Tight end Nick Vannett has flashed here and there but is not a consistent part of the team’s pass offense, and neither are any of Chris Carson, Rashaad Penny or Mike Davis.
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The primary focus in the passing game, then, figures to be Tyler Lockett and David Moore, who will primarily work against Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes. Rhodes is almost sure to shadow Lockett when he’s on the perimeter, but the Seahawks would be smart to bump Lockett inside more often than usual in this game because the Vikes typically prefer to keep Rhodes on the outside. Having Lockett work against Mackensie Alexander (93.1 passer rating allowed in the slot) is far preferable to having him work against one of the premier shadow corners in the NFL.
It’s difficult to tell if the Vikings would have Rhodes shadow Moore if Lockett spends the majority of his time inside, but if so, that would open up opportunities for Jaron Brown working against Waynes. Perhaps the best way to attack Minnesota through the air, however, would be to figure out a way to get one of the receivers matched up on linebackers Anthony Barr or Eric Kendricks, which has happened far too often to the Vikings this season.
A big key, as always, will be keeping Wilson well-protected, which is far tougher to do against Minnesota now that the defense is at full strength. They’ve come on strong (with the exception of last week against the Patriots, natch) and now have the NFL’s second-highest Adjusted Sack Rate, per Football Outsiders.
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As good as the Vikings are against the pass, they may be even stronger against the run, and that could cause some problems for the Seahawks, who run more often than any team in football — by a lot. The Vikings are a stronger tackling team than almost any in football (they’ve missed only 20 tackles on running plays this year, per Sports Info Solutions, the fifth-fewest in the NFL) and when they’re on, they’re disciplined enough to tackle the running back while still containing Wilson inside the pocket and not letting him take off around the edge.
As such they’ve allowed only 1.6 yards before contact per rush attempt, per Pro Football Focus, the fifth-best mark in the NFL. Seattle, though their offensive line has been better this season, does not often generate a ton of yards before contact and instead depends on Carson, Penny, Davis, and Wilson to break tackles and create extra yards. Those are hard to come by against Minnesota.
The Vikings have to be considered one of the NFL’s most disappointing offenses this season. Sure, Dalvin Cook has been injured for much of the year, but when they signed Kirk Cousins this offseason I don’t think anybody in Minnesota expected to rank 15th in yards per game, 18th in points per game, and 17th in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA heading into Week 14. Hopes were much higher than that — especially after they ranked 11th, 10th, and fifth in the same figures last year and secured a quarterback upgrade.
Instead of taking a step forward, though, they’ve largely stagnated. To what that should be attributed, I’m not entirely sure, but the focus has to start with the offensive line, which has simply been dreadful. Cousins has been pressured on 214 drop backs this season, most in the NFL despite the fact that he’s played one fewer game than every other team save for the Seahawks. Take a look at how his numbers have dropped off when under pressure vs. on plays when he’s been kept clean, per Pro Football Focus.
Cousins’ 39.6 percent pressure rate is almost exactly the same as Case Keenum’s 39.3 percent mark from last year, but Keenum is a much more mobile player more suited to playing behind a leaky offensive line and freelancing within and outside the pocket. Keenum also was not very good on plays where he was pressured, but he was able to avoid sacks more consistently than Cousins has been so far this year. (Cousins has been sacked on 5.8 percent of his drop backs this season, while Keenum was sacked 4.4 percent of the time a year ago.)
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Cousins is on track for a career-best completion rate this year, but other numbers like his yards-per-attempt average, yards per completion, average depth of throw, and touchdown rate are down, and the figures that are up are coming in the context of the friendliest passing environment in league history and don’t look quite as good when compared to league averages as they have in previous years. For instance, his 99.1 passer rating is 5.5 percent better than league average this season, per Pro-Football-Reference, but his 97.2 rating during his Pro Bowl 2016 campaign was 8.8 percent better than average that season. (The league average is up from 89.3 to 93.9.)
Cousins has really only found a rhythm with two of his targets: Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Here’s what we wrote about Thielen a few weeks back:
In nine games, Thielen leads the NFL with 78 catches, just 13 off the career-high he set a year ago. He’s on pace to catch 138 passes for the full season, which would be the second-most in NFL history. His seven touchdowns are already the most he’s ever scored in a season. And it’s not just volume. The NFL has tracked targets since 1992. During that time, there have been 1,054 instances of a wide receiver or tight end being targeted at least 100 times in a season. Thielen’s current 75.7 percent catch rate ranks NINTH among that group of 1,054 players. That’s inside the top 0.1 percent.
He has fallen off somewhat since then, but only very slightly. Thielen now has 98 catches for 1,166 yards and nine scores on 134 targets. He’s on pace for 131 catches, which would be the fourth-most in NFL history. Thielen’s current 73.1 percent catch rate is no longer inside the top 0.1 percent of seasons of the past 27 seasons, but it’s still pretty damn close.
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And it’s not like he hasn’t been good in the past three games since we wrote that story — he has 20 catches for 219 yards and two scores while playing through injury. Diggs, meanwhile, was heating up until last week’s dud against New England. In the previous three games, he went for at least eight catches, 77 yards, and a touchdown, totaling 31 grabs for 322 yards and three scores.
The Seahawks still play sides with cornerbacks Shaquill Griffin and Tre Flowers, as the team has for years, but both of them are playing extremely well right now. (Griffin has played 95 percent of his snaps at left corner and Flowers has been at right corner for 94 percent of his snaps.) That said, if the Vikings have a preferred guy they want Diggs to work against during the game, they can engineer that matchup if they want, sacrificing Laquon Treadwell or Aldrick Robinson to the other corner while letting Thielen primarily work against Justin Coleman in the slot. Coleman’s having a strong season but that will presumably be the matchup the Vikings go after most — if Cousins has enough time to get off a throw, which is no guarantee against Frank Clark and company up front.
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Being able to keep the Seattle front off balance would be nice, but the Vikes have struggled to get their run game going with any consistency this season. The injuries to Cook have played a role there, but he and Latavius Murray are each averaging just 4.2 yards per carry anyway. Seattle has proven tough to run against in power situations and backs have a low success rate against them in general, so even early-down runs could be unwise as that’d set Cousins up behind the sticks, making it more likely the Seahawks can pin their ears back and get some pressure.