The Vikings have the two top return men in the NFL, but Seattle has incredibly solid coverage units for kickoffs and punts. In a game sprinkled with intriguing matchups, don't count out the special teams factor.
In most NFL games, the talking heads of the media will be focused primarily on the offense and defense.
But there is a third group that, if the Vikings are to win today, will have to play a significant role in providing the Vikings with field position that could be critical in a battle of two run-first offenses.
The Vikings, for all of their failings in 2013, have a pair of league frontrunners.
At a time when only 15 of the NFL's 32 teams have kick returners with enough per-game run-backs to qualify for the league rankings, Cordarrelle Patterson
rules the roost. He's averaging better than 35 yards per return and has taken two kicks back 105 yards or more to the house. He has become so dangerous that the Vikings may have set or, at a minimum. tied a record in their first four kick returns against the Redskins last week. Four different players returned kickoffs for the Vikings.
The question posed to Seattle is whether they want to let Steven Hauschka
launch kickoffs that they hope will land outside the end zone. Patterson has a history of bringing back kickoffs from nine yards deep and doing some damage with those returns.
Hauschka has 34 touchbacks on kickoffs, so the odds are high for him striking a ball well from the 35-yard line. Of the 24 kickoffs that have been returned, 14 of them have been stopped inside the 20-yard line – the most of any team in the league. That fact alone has special teams coordinator Mike Priefer convinced Seattle will dare Patterson to bring one back.
"I think Seattle's going to kick to us," Priefer said. "Why wouldn't they? They're the best kickoff team in the NFL. They're outstanding. They have a great kicker. They have great players covering. They're well-coached. I think they're going to kick it to us. That's my gut feeling."
Even more problematic will be punt returns. Like Patterson on kickoffs, Marcus Sherels
leads the league in punt returns. He is averaging 16.3 yards on kicks he feels he can bring back. That is 1.3 yards more than Seattle has allowed – all season.
Punter Jon Ryan
has been asked to punt 39 times this season. Only 11 of those punts have been returned. One of them went for 10 yards. The other 10 combined have gone for a grand total of five yards.
Priefer explained the subtle difference between Ryan of 2012 and Ryan of 2013.
"Their punter has been a guy in the past that has out-kicked his coverage at times," Priefer said. "They've limited him from doing that this year. He's putting them a little bit shorter – not much shorter – a little bit shorter and much higher."
Entering play Sunday, no team returns kicks better than the Vikings. No team prevents others from returning kicks as well as Seattle. The battles between the offenses and defenses of both teams will be the focal point today, but it may be the special teams that provide the compelling storyline when the two best units at their respective jobs butt heads in collision fashion.
VIKINGS-SEAHAWKS BY THE NUMBERS
The Vikings have the 28th-ranked offense (17th rushing, 25th passing) and the 30th-ranked defense (17th rushing, 29th passing).
The Vikings average 316 yards of offense a game (207 passing, 109 rushing), while allowing 399 yards a game (286 passing, 113 rushing).
Seattle has the 11th-ranked offense (2nd rushing, 24th passing) and the third-ranked defense (15th rushing, 2nd passing).
The Seahawks are averaging 362 yards a game (209 passing, 153 rushing), while allowing just 289 yards a game (178 passing, 111 rushing).
Seattle is sixth in giveaway/takeaway ratio at plus-7 (15 giveaways, 22 takeaways). Only Kansas City has more takeaways (23).
Minnesota is tied for 23rd at minus-4 (18 giveaways, 14 takeaways).
The Vikings are 11th in red zone offense, scoring touchdowns on 57.7 percent of opportunities (15 of 26). Seattle is tied for 12th at 57.1 percent (20 of 35).
The Seahawks are tied for fourth in red zone defense, allowing touchdowns on just 10 of 24 opponent possessions (41.7 percent). The Vikings are 18th at 57.9 percent (22 of 38). Only Jacksonville (43) has allowed more red zone possessions than the Vikings.
The league average of third-down conversions is 38.5 percent. The Vikings are 11th in third-down offense at 40.2 percent (47 of 117). Seattle is 12th at 35.8 percent (53 of 128).
Defensively the Vikings are the worst in the league on third down, allowing conversions on 50 percent of opponent opportunities (67 of 134). Seattle is 15th at 38.1 percent (51 of 136).
The Vikings haven't had a 300-yard passer all season. Russell Wilson has one 300-yard passing game.
Minnesota has allowed four 300-yard passers. Seattle has allowed just one.
Jerome Simpson has both of the Vikings' 100-yard receiving games. Golden Tate has the only 100-yard receiving game for Seattle.
The Vikings have allowed a whopping eight 100-yard receivers in nine games. Seattle has allowed three in 10 games – all coming from receivers from the AFC South (Cecil Shorts, T.Y. Hilton and Andre Johnson).
Adrian Peterson has three 100-yard rushing games. Seattle has four – three by Marshawn Lynch and one by Wilson.
The Vikings have allowed just one 100-yard rusher – Alfred Morris in their last game. Seattle has allowed three 100-yard rushers.
Despite not throwing a lot of passes, Wilson has been an effective quarterback. He is 21st in attempts (257), 20th in completions (163), 10th in completion percentage (63.4), 17th in yards (2,132), sixth in average gain (8.30), seventh in touchdowns (17), third in touchdown percentage (6.6), tied for ninth in interceptions (6), 15th in interception percentage (2.3) and fifth in passer rating (101.8).
The Vikings have had three different starting quarterbacks, so getting individual rankings that make sense for the amount of time they played is difficult. However, if one assumes the combination of the three Vikings QBs were viewed as a single player in the individual rankings, they would be 16th in attempts (307), 15th in completions (187), 17th in completion percentage (60.9), 19th in yards (1,972), 29th in average gain (6.42 yards), tied for 25th in touchdown passes (8), 31st in touchdown percentage (2.6), tied for 25th in interceptions (10), 27th in interception percentage (3.3), and 27th in passer rating (74.7).
Lynch is second in the league in rushing with 871 yards. Peterson is fourth with 786 yards. Their per-game averages would have Peterson with 87.3 yards and Lynch with 87.1.
If Peterson is to repeat as a 2,000-yard rusher, he will need to average 173 yards in the final seven games. If he intends to meet his preseason goal of 2,500 yards, he will have to average 245 yards a game.
Tate leads Seattle in receptions with 41, which tied him for 34th in the league. Simpson leads the Vikings with 34 receptions, which ties him for 57th in the league.
Tate is tied for 26th in receiving yards with 574 yards. Doug Baldwin is 36th with 523 yards. Simpson leads the Vikings with 491 yards, which is 44th in the league.
Peterson is tied for first with New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham in scoring among non-kickers with 60 points (10 touchdowns). Lynch is tied for ninth with 48 points (eight touchdowns).
Hauschka leads the NFL in scoring with 93 points in 10 games. Blair Walsh is tied for 20th with 64 points in nine games.
Lynch is third in the league in total yards from scrimmage with 1,084 (871 rushing, 213 receiving). Peterson is seventh with 949 (786 rushing, 163 receiving).
Two Seahawks – Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas – are tied for third in the league with four interceptions. Three Vikings – Chad Greenway, Erin Henderson and Harrison Smith – are tied for 25th with two interceptions.
Seattle's Michael Bennett is tied for 14th place in sacks with 6.5. Cliff Avril is tied for 25th with 5.5. Jared Allen is tied for 27th with five sacks.
Allen is on pace for nine sacks this season. It would be the first time since 2006 that Allen hasn't had double-digit sacks.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.