There are some teams who don’t go out of their way to disguise what they’re planning to do to you. When the Minnesota Vikings play the Packers, they know that, many more times than not, they’re going to get one-on-one coverage from their cornerbacks. When it comes to the Seattle Seahawks, it’s all about getting pressure from the front four on passing downs and leaving the back seven players in coverage. The Vikings know what to expect, making the battle between Seattle defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett against Vikings offensive tackles Matt Kalil and T.J. Clemmings this week’s key matchup.
For the entirety of the 2015 season, Kalil has been the only Minnesota offensive line starter playing the same position as he did in 2014 as the team’s left tackle. The group had its share of struggles – Teddy Bridgewater has been sacked 31 times and has avoided numerous more by throwing passes away or escaping pressure and running.
He has played Seattle twice in his young career and knows what the Seahawks can do, especially with their front four.
“They don’t blitz a lot because they depend on their front four to get pressure,” Kalil said. “They do a very good job of it. Avril is coming at you on every play and, on the other side, Bennett is pretty relentless, too. A lot of teams try to get pressure from blitzes. They’ll bring them every other play if they think it will work. Seattle doesn’t do that. They’re confident that they can get to the quarterback with their base pass rush and it has worked for them.”
Avril made his name in Detroit as an elite pass rusher. In his final three seasons with the Lions, he recorded 29 sacks and, when he became a free agent, he was immediately snapped up by the Seahawks as one of the needed ingredients to put their defense over the top. He didn’t get off to a dynamic start as a rotational player in his first season, but once he was entrenched in the starting lineup, the production followed.
In his two seasons with Seattle, he has two rings to show for it – one championship ring and one conference title ring. In 2014, he recorded eight sacks and was a consistent disruptor. Through 11 games this season, he has 7½ sacks to lead the team and has been improving as he understands his role in the defense better.
Bennett’s story is nearly identical. Like Avril, he earned his stripes elsewhere (with Tampa Bay) and, also like Avril, spent his first season as a rotational player who started just three of the 16 games he played. Once put into the starting lineup, he had 38 tackles and seven sacks in 16 games with the Seahawks. Through 11 games this season – his second as a full-time starter in the system – he has 36 tackles and 6½ sacks.
Both of them have become more productive in their second seasons as full-time starters in the Seattle system and have put together better seasons statistically than either of their first two Super Bowl years. Because they’re been able to keep the defense from being forced to blitz to get pressure, they have given the Seahawks the luxury to drop seven players into coverage on pass plays.
The Seahawks know the Vikings are going to be looking to run the ball early and often with Adrian Peterson and stopping him will be Job One on the defensive side of things. But if the Vikings are to put together long scoring drives or Seattle is successful in bottling up Peterson, the onus will fall on Bridgewater to shoulder the load offensively and be asked to beat Seattle with his arm.
“We plan to be physical with them because that is our identity as an offensive line,” Kalil said. “We want to be the more physical group on the field. When it comes to pass protection, we’re going to need that same drive. We need to stick to our technique and keep them from doing what they want to or doing what they do best.”
What they do best is get their defense off the field with sacks and pressures that force the ball out of the quarterback’s hand quicker than he wants. Defensive linemen don’t get credit for interceptions, but they are often the result of forcing a QB to throw into coverage or to throw before he wants to. If Bridgewater is pressured, he will throw the occasional bad pass and few secondaries are as opportunistic as the Legion of Boom.
If the Vikings are to hold on to first place in the NFC North, one of the primary needs on offense will be to keep Seattle’s top two sackers at bay, making the trench warfare between Seattle’s dynamic defensive ends and the Vikings’ bookend offensive tackles this week’s key matchup.