The Vikings-Seahawks game Sunday has plenty of intriguing matchups to watch. There's the battle of the two best running backs in the league (Adrian Peterson vs. Marshawn Lynch). There's the anticipated matchup between the Vikings defensive ends up against read-option QB specialist Russell Wilson. And, of course, there is the return to action of Percy Harvin, who will play his first game of the season against his former Vikings teammates.
But we've already taken an in-depth look at those challenges. With all of the focus on what the Seattle offense is going to do against the Vikings, what has been missed largely in that conversation is the Seattle defense is every bit as responsible for the 9-1 record as any aspect of the team, making the battle between Vikings offensive tackles Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt against the four-man defensive end rotation of the Seahawks as this week's key matchup.
Through 10 games, Seattle's defense has allowed just 14 touchdowns to be scored against it – 10 passing and four rushing. As with any successful defense, it starts up front and it can be argued that nobody is better up front than the Seahawks. Pete Carroll brought his USC philosophy of interchanging DEs to the NFL and few can argue the success that he's had in that regard. Cliff Avril was one of the premium players on the free-agent market at the end of last season and he isn't even a starter. He and Michael Bennett share time with Red Bryant and Chris Clemons, and the four of them are as responsible as anyone for why the Seahawks have 31 sacks and have forced 20 fumbles.
Bryant is as good an edge-holding run stopper as there is in the league at his left defensive end position. Clemons, Avril and Bennett are the pass-rushing specialists, and their numbers through 10 games are impressive to say the least. Bennett leads the team with 6.5 sacks, followed by Avril with 5.5 and Clemons with 3.5. They are tenacious pass rushers and, because Seattle has perfected a rotation of ends, they don't wear down during games. When one of the players is visibly tired, he is replaced because there isn't a noticeable drop-off in talent from one to the next.
It's hard to argue the results. Only one opponent has scored more than 24 points against Seattle and five of their 10 opponents have scored 13 points or fewer. On average, Seattle is allowing just 16 points a game and has allowed opposing quarterbacks a cumulative passer rating of just 70.4. Only four quarterbacks with enough passes to qualify among the league leaders this season have a passer rating worse than what Seattle allows – Terrelle Pryor, Eli Manning, Brandon Weeden and Josh Freeman. Christian Ponder, who has been under fire by Vikings fans this season, has a 77.6 passer rating, a full seven points above what the Seahawks allow.
The job of Kalil and Loadholt will be doubly difficult because the Seahawks are expected to flood the box with eight or nine players in order to shut down Adrian Peterson, who is always Priority One for opposing defenses in game planning. Much of that run pressure will come up the middle from linebackers and safeties – the idea being to clog the middle running lanes and force Peterson to the outside, where the Seattle fabulous four defensive ends will be waiting for him.
Rotating the defensive ends in an out will keep them fresh during the game, while Kalil and Loadholt are expected to be on the field every offensive play. They will wear down as the game goes on because, unlike their defensive counterparts, they don't get to come out for a play here or a play there to get their wind back and get ready for the next offensive snap.
Most of the focus heading into Sunday will be on the offensive stars of the Seahawks and how the Vikings defense will try to contain them, but perhaps the biggest reason why one team wins and one team loses may well come down to how Kalil and Loadholt hold up against the Seattle defensive end rotation, making that the key matchup this week.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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