Seattle handed Minnesota its most humbling defeat of the 2015 season – a 38-7 blowout Dec. 6 on the Vikings’ temporary home turf at TCF Bank Stadium. Everyone remembers, despite the wish to forget, the 10-9 playoff loss back at the scene of the crime a month later.
With both teams looking to meet again in January as Super Bowl contenders, their meeting Thursday night in Seattle will be a preseason tune-up for both teams, as they kick the tires on their front-line players a bit more in hopes of fine-tuning their lineups. In the case of the Seahawks, there are some questions that need to be answered on both sides of the ball.
The Seahawks have enjoyed a lot of success since Russell Wilson came to the team as a third-round pick who was viewed as a developmental quarterback that could eventually compete for a starting job with Matt Flynn and Tarvaris Jackson. By the end of the preseason, Flynn was sent packing, T-Jack was wearing a baseball cap on the sidelines and Wilson was starting – a situation that hasn’t changed for Wilson.
It wasn’t until Marshawn Lynch got injured that Wilson exploded as a passer, throwing 24 touchdown passes in the final seven games of the season. However, this year, the onus is on Wilson to not only build upon his epic finish, but to stay healthy. The only other two quarterbacks on the roster have no NFL experience – Trevone Boykin and Jake Heaps. While Wilson isn’t expect to play long, getting reps for the backups will be critical because the Seahawks appear to be going all-in on their starter with little regard to having a Plan B if Wilson gets injured.
In some ways, the story is eerily similar at running back. For almost all of Pete Carroll’s tenure as head coach there he had the security blanket of having Beast Mode playing behind Wilson. Lynch was the centerpiece of the offense, much in the same way Adrian Peterson has been for the Vikings. He could be counted on for 20 carries a game and, when the team was trying to close out wins, they could count on Lynch to grind out the needed yardage to bleed out the clock and earn a win.
With Lynch retired, the void is looking to get filled by players who have only been in a subordinate role. Thomas Rawls took over for Lynch and played extremely well and has many of the same qualities as Lynch, but he is coming off surgery and has been brought along slowly during training camp. He isn’t expected to play Thursday night and in his place is Christine Michael, who was traded to Dallas last year only to be cut and return to the Seahawks. He has been impressive in training camp taking the first-team reps.
However, it seemed clear that Carroll wasn’t going to ignore the running back position like he did with quarterback. The Seahawks became the first team in almost 40 years to draft three running backs in one year – Matt Forte clone C.J. Prosise in the third round, Alex Smith, a player in the mold of Lynch, in the fifth round and Zac Brooks in the seventh round. The objective during the preseason is going to be determining a pecking order among the running backs to determine who is best suited to carry the workload in the backfield. The game with the Vikings could go a long way to making that process clearer.
There are other questions as well, including whether Jimmy Graham can return to dominant form this season, if rookie right guard Germain Ifedi can live up to his first-round status as the team replaces J.R. Sweezy, and if the tackle combination of Garry Gilliam and Bradley Sowell at left tackle and former Vikings bust J’Marcus Webb at right tackle can get the job done on a consistent basis. Of all the losses on the Seahawks roster, replacing Russell Okung may be the biggest challenge they face.
Seattle’s calling card remains defense, where stars like Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas are all stars in the prime of their careers.
But, as happens to a young team that enjoys success together, not everybody can be kept. Such is the case with Seattle, where they need to replace Pro Bowl linebacker Bruce Irvin and defensive tackle Brandon Mebane.
The battle for the right defensive tackle spot once manned by Mebane and former Viking Kevin Williams is going to be waged between three players – 2013 third-round pick Jordan Hill, who has the needed talent but has struggled to stay healthy, second-round rookie Jarran Reed and veteran Sealver Siliga, who spent time early on his career on the Seattle practice squad before making a name for himself in Denver and New England before rejoining the Seahawks as a free agent this offseason.
Replacing Irvin will be more difficult because he was an elite player and was one of the most disruptive in Seattle’s attacking defense. Like at defensive tackle, there are three candidates fighting for the job – special teams ace Michael Morgan, who had 17 tackles in two injury-replacement starts last year, blazing fast third-year man Kevin Pierre-Louis, who boasts 4.4 speed, and converted safety Eric Pinkins. Like the glut of players at tackle, all three will have the opportunity to win the job, although Pierre-Lewis has been spending more time in training camp on the right side than the left.
Seattle got bounced out of the playoffs by eventual NFC champion Carolina in the harshest of ways – getting completely blown out in the first half and, despite trimming the deficit down to the final score of 31-24, it proved too little, too late in their attempted comeback. They are a team that is hungry to return to the Super Bowl and view the Vikings as one of the legitimate obstacles in their way.
Like the Vikings, the Seahawks have a lot of their personnel locked and loaded for the 2016 season, but the players looking to fill the few vacancies they have will take center stage Thursday night as the coaching staff looks to find the magic formula to keep the Seahawks as a perennial Super Bowl favorite in the NFC.