Seahawks relying on big games from Michael Bennett, Thomas Rawls against the Vikings

Sure, stopping Adrian Peterson will be key. But this is a possible playoff preview. Let's dig a little deeper.

As much as any other professional sport, the NFL is a team game.  No one player can be successful without the assistance of others. That said, individual matchups can and do determine winners and losers on a weekly basis.

Sure, listing Russell Wilson or Adrian Peterson as players to watch Sunday but let's dig deeper. The goal here is to identify three critical one-on-one matchups (that few others are talking about) which will likely determine whether or not the Seahawks emerge victorious.

Matchup No. 1: Seahawks DE Michael Bennett vs. Vikings RT T.J. Clemmings
Bennett started off the season like gangbusters, recording a sack in each of the first two games and was unbelievable on the road in San Francisco in Week Seven, recording 3.5 sacks of Colin Kaepernick. Bennett doesn't have a sack since and has recorded only eight tackles overall over the past four games - perhaps an indication that a DL-most 606 snaps this season has the 30-year old tiring just a bit. The Seahawks have appeared hesitant to substitute Frank Clark in for Bennett though the team may have gained confidence in the rookie after he recorded the first regular season sack of his career last week against Ben Roethlisberger.

When lined up at left defensive end Bennett (or Clark) will be matching up against Clemmings, a rookie tackle from Pitt and a former defensive end, himself. The 6-5, 309 pound Clemming looks the part of a future NFL star with vines for arms (35 1/8"), broad shoulders, a trim middle and light feet. While gifted, he's understandably raw still in his technique and struggled with veteran edge rushers at the Senior Bowl - part of the reason why he slipped to the second round.

Bennett's burst off the ball gets a lot of praise (as it should) but he's also strong and quite savvy and uses his hands well to work himself free. In setting the edge to help contain Peterson or collapsing the pocket to harass Teddy Bridgewater, Bennett has to make his presence felt Sunday.  

Matchup No. 2: Seahawks Nickel CB vs. Vikings Slot WR Jarius Wright
With just the NFL's 31st rated passing attack, most expect Minnesota to lean heavily on Peterson and the running game but after the Seahawks' secondary was sliced apart last week by Roethlisberger, you can expect Norv Turner is going to call up a few verticals.

DeShawn Shead held up remarkably well against Pittsburgh's freakishly athletic Martavis Bryant. He'll be asked to cover two other legitimate 4.4 speedsters Sunday in the Vikings' Mike Wallace and Stefon Diggs. Until either Marcus Burley or Jeremy Lane prove they can handle Wright, however, the Vikings are likely to attack there.

At 5-10, 191 pounds Wright possesses a similar size and agility combination as Pittsburgh's Markus Wheaton, who shredded Seattle last week for nine catches for 201 passing yards and a touchdown as part of Pittsburgh's record-breaking performance.

With just eight passing touchdowns on the season, Bridgewater is hardly the threat Roethlisberger was a week ago but that's largely by design. Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer is an old school defensive-minded coach like Pete Carroll and he doesn't call on Bridgewater to throw the ball often.  His young quarterback is already a legitimate NFL starter in just his second season, demonstrating much better awareness, anticipation and accuracy than his numbers would indicate. With Burley limited in practice this week with an ankle injury and Lane clearly rusty, the Seahawks could once again struggle to cover the middle of the field -- an especially critical issue if Earl Thomas' open-field tackling doesn't bounce back.   

Matchup No. 3: Seahawks RB Thomas Rawls vs. Vikings MLB Eric Kendricks
It goes without saying that the Seahawks will attempt to feature Rawls in this contest. Running the ball effectively is not good for Seattle's offense, it also obviously keeps Peterson and the Vikings' off the field, as well. Whether the Seahawks are effective in this manner in most games has come down to the offensive line. That's because previously the Seahawks could count on Marshawn Lynch to generate plenty of yardage at the second level if the Seattle's offensive line could just get him past the line of scrimmage. Normally that would be the case with the hard-charging Rawls, as well, but this Vikings linebacker corps is far from ordinary.

Chad Greenway remains one of the better all-around linebackers in the game and it isn't mere coincidence that Anthony Barr rhymes with superstar. The former Bruin is a remarkable talent who leads the Vikings in tackles (61) and forced fumbles (three). Perhaps the player most critical to Seattle's attack, however, should be Kendricks, yet another rookie starting and playing reasonably well for the 8-3 Vikings.

Like his bigger, more explosive teammate at UCLA and now with the Vikings, Barr, Kendricks is an instinctive, athletic defender at his best chasing down ball-carriers. Both linebackers possess the balance and agility to handle Rawls' jump-cuts and still get their arms on Seattle's high-energy rookie runner. The question will be whether Rawls can run through their attempts as both linebackers have a tendency to lower their shoulder in an attempt to deliver the big hit... and will occasionally miss entirely.

Just as critical to how well Rawls runs in this game will be his effectiveness in pass protection. Rawls did a nice job chipping last week against Pittsburgh but Kendricks will test him. Zimmer isn't afraid to send Kendricks on delayed blitzes up the middle, with the rookie ranking second on the Vikings behind star defensive Everson Griffen (who played under Carroll at USC) in sacks with four.


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