When NFL fans looked at the Vikings-Seahawks game on the 2004 schedule, many viewed it as a potential battle for home-field advantage in the playoffs. While both Minnesota and Seattle are strong contenders to win division titles, both have taken a circuitous route to get to their goal.
To open the season, the Seahawks looked completely dominant. In their first three games, they went unbeaten — outscoring their opponents 65-13. But this is the same team that went on to lose three straight, has been beaten soundly by Arizona and Buffalo and swept by the Rams. The Seahawks the Vikings will see are still good, but more desperate.
One of the problems has been at quarterback. Matt Hasselbeck has been sidelined with injuries and he hasn't developed as quickly as coach Mike Holmgren had hoped. Every time it seems Hasselbeck shows signs of becoming a top QB, he takes a step back. Will this be the guy who led the Seahawks to a blowout win in 2002 or the one who got hammered 34-7 at the Dome last year? Problem is, Holmgren isn't sure which one will show up.
With Hasselbeck dinged up, much of the Seahawks' success is tied into Shaun Alexander. One of the game's top backs, Alexander is averaging more than 20 carries, 100 yards and a touchdown a game. He has been the center of the offense, much like Ahman Green is for the Packers. He has quality assistance in fullback Mack Strong and third-year man Maurice Morris, but expect to see a lot of Alexander.
While Alexander has been deadly consistent all year, the same can't be said for the receiver corps. The Seahawks drop more passes in a game than some teams do in a season, and they do it every week. As difficult as that is to deal with, Koren Robinson is sitting out because of a violation of the league's substance abuse policy, so the Seahawks will lean on veteran Darrell Jackson and Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, who is dealing with a thigh injury. Jackson is clearly the go-to guy in the passing offense — on his way to 80 catches and 1,200 yards — and Rice is a steady move-the-chains target. Jerheme Urban continues to assert himself in the absence of suspended WR Koren Robinson. Bobby Engram is a very solid third-down receiver, and tight ends Itula Mili and Jerramy Stevens are both dependable red zone targets, which gives Seattle many more viable options than simply Alexander left and Alexander right.
Up front, the Seahawks are very solid. The left side is as good as it gets with tackle Walter Jones and guard Steve Hutchinson. The farther right you go on the line, the more problems you find, as center Robbie Tobeck and Chris Gray account for themselves pretty well, but tackle Floyd Womack is a backup guard filling in for injured Chris Terry. This group can be dominating at times, but look for the Hawks to run left a lot.
The main cause for the Seahawks' slide can be attributed to the lack of a consistent pass rush. Teams have averaged throwing 35 passes a game vs. the Seattle D for about 240 yards, which tends to lead to a lot of long drives. When healthy, Seattle has a strong front four with pass-rushing ends Chike Okeafor and Grant Wistrom. Neither has been healthy at the same time since early in the season, but both are expected to be ready for the Vikes — joining tackles Marcus Tubbs and Cedric Woodard, trying to come back today after a knee injury. There is very little depth, so having all four of them healthy is a must for Seattle to make a division title run.
The linebackers have been a complete mess all year (sound familiar?). Heading into training camp, the idea was to squeeze another year out of Chad Brown and Anthony Simmons. Instead, the trio of Isaiah Kacyvenski, Orlando Huff and Solomon Bates — who combined to start three games in 2003 — has been pressed into duty. Passing offenses that predicate on the slant passing game (like St. Louis, New England and Buffalo) have shredded this unit. Look for the Vikings to try the same approach.
The secondary, too, has problems. Cornerback Bobby Taylor has been sidelined and pushed Ken Lucas into the starting lineup. He joins Marcus Trufant, a shutdown corner in his second year. Trufant likely will draw the assignment of containing Randy Moss, but he'll need help from safeties Ken Hamlin and Terreal Bierria. In nickel and dime situations, rookie Michael Boulware sees action, but injuries have thinned out what could have been a solid secondary, which should play into the Vikings' hands.
This will be the third year in a row that the Vikings will meet the Seahawks and both previous games have been blowouts. If the Vikings can take advantage of the defensive weaknesses on Seattle and contain Alexander, a third blowout could be in the offing. If they do neither, a blowout could still occur — just not the kind the Vikings want.
BRYANT McKINNIE vs. GRANT WISTROM — When teams look to build the foundation of a champion, two positions are almost invariably set — bookend left offensive tackle and pass-rushing defensive end. Both are critical to a team's success — the OLT protects the QB's blind side and the pass rusher disrupts things and causes turnovers. Both the Vikings and Seahawks addressed one of those positions with major investments and those players — Bryant McKinnie and Grant Wistrom — are this week's key matchup.
Some Wistrom critics have claimed he's a one-trick pony — he's a speed pass rusher. But years of double-digit sacks in St. Louis prompted the division rival Seahawks to snap him up early in free agency. He's missed considerable time with a foot injury, but when he's on he's worth every dollar and can change a game with one sack or forced fumble. Without him, Seattle's defense suffered, but his return has the Seahawks thinking positively about a solid stretch run.
The same is true with McKinnie. Before his arrival after a holdout in the 2002 season, the Vikings were already in the tank — including a monster blowout loss to Seattle. McKinnie isn't getting a lot of national accolades, but he is developing into one of the top left tackles in the game and has neutralized some of the best speed rushers in the league.
If given time, Daunte Culpepper will be able to pick apart a suspect Seattle defense. It will be Wistrom's responsibility to deny Culpepper the time he needs for routes to develop. It will be McKinnie's job to make sure Wistrom is a non-factor. Whichever player wins this individual battle likely will be on the team that wins the game.
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