Coming out of the bye week, the Vikings don't get any favors from the NFL – opening their return to action on the road in Seattle. Coming off an improbable last-second 30-28 win over the Rams, the Seahawks stand alone atop the NFC West and look primed to make a repeat trip to the playoffs as division champions.
But they face a Vikings team that has an upset on its mind – an upset from the Las Vegas standpoint only, because the Vikings expect to beat the Seahawks. While the pre-game hype will likely be dominated by the return of Steve Hutchinson to Seattle – when has a guard leaving a team caused such a furor? – there are several key matchups to keep an eye on. The biggest is likely the news that All-Pro running back Shaun Alexander will be missing this game with a broken bone in his foot. Alexander ripped the Vikings open for five first-half touchdowns the last time they played in Seattle. With Alexander out, the running game has been turned over to Maurice Morris. While no slouch in his own right, Morris is clearly a step down from Alexander and a player that will be easier for the Vikings defensive front to bottle up.
That has been the case for much of the time Alexander has been out, but in the interim, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has taken over the thrust of the offense, transforming the Seahawks from a run-first team to one that is willing and capable of dominating teams through the air. The Seahawks have loaded up at wide receiver this year and still haven't seen the full fruit of their labor. Darrell Jackson remains Hasselbeck's favorite target, but he is far from alone. Former Viking Nate Burleson has struggled in his transition to the Seahawks, but Vikings fans know what he is capable of. He's been replaced in the starting lineup by Deion Branch, the former No. 1 receiver in New England. After sitting out the first couple of games following a training camp holdout, Branch has finally worked his way into the Seahawks starting lineup. Veteran Bobby Engram has been hobbled with illness, but with him out, it opens up offensive opportunities for tight end Jerramy Stevens, who missed the start of the season with injuries of his own. Hasselbeck is loaded with weapons and the Vikings will have to work overtime in the secondary to keep from getting burned by big plays in the new-look Seahawk offense.
For Seattle's offense to be effective, it's going to require a solid job from the offensive line, which has struggled since the loss of Steve Hutchinson to the Vikings. Walter Jones remains the best left tackle in the NFC, but without Hutch, the rest of line hasn't been nearly as dominant. The right side of the line remains the same with center Robbie Tobeck, guard Chris Gray and tackle Sean Locklear, but left guard has been a gaping hole. Starter Pork Chop Womack has been sidelined, leaving the job to second-year man Chris Spencer – a converted center – and rookie Rob Sims. Both of them are vulnerable to being blown up and the Vikings will make a concerted effort to bring pressure from the offense's left side to keep Jones from protecting Spencer or Sims.
While the Seahawks offense is what the organization has invested for long-term success, it hasn't ignored the defense. Ends Bryce Fisher and Grant Wistrom were both free agent signings brought in to provide a stronger pass rush, and tackles Rocky Bernard and Chuck Darby, while not dominant, are steady and clog the middle running lanes. They run on a rotation system with Marcus Tubbs and Russell Davis, making the group stronger than its individual parts. With end Joe Tafoya injured, look for rookie Darryl Tapp to see significant playing time as the third defensive end in the mix. This is a group that can be manhandled by big offensive lines, so if the Vikings can neutralize this group, the offense should be able to have more success than it did pre-bye.
Once a weakness as recently as a couple of years ago, the Seahawks have bolstered their linebacker corps to the point that it is now a strength. Lofa Tatupu made an immediate impact at middle linebacker and was named a Pro Bowl alternate as a rookie. The team added OLB Julian Peterson in the off-season, one of the most sought-after free agents available. They're joined by second-year pro Leroy Hill, who is also used as a situational pass rusher. He finished last year with 7½ sacks and will have to be accounted for on third downs. This is one of the most active, opportunistic linebacker groups in the NFC and has been the primary reason that the Seahawks are successfully defending their NFC championship.
If there has been a disappointment in the Seahawks defense, it has been in the secondary. Seattle currently ranks 28th in passing defense, allowing 239 yards a game and surrendering nine touchdowns through the air (as opposed to only three rushing TDs). This has happened despite a solid core of players in the defensive backfield, including cornerbacks Marcus Trufant and Kelly Herndon and safeties Michael Boulware and Ken Hamlin. Trufant has adjusted to his role as a shutdown corner, but Herndon has struggled at time, where his physical style has resulted in getting burned by quick receivers off the line. Hamlin has made a solid recovery from head injuries sustained in a bar fight last year and has returned as a leader of the defense, while Boulware, a converted college linebacker, is one of the biggest hitters in the league. While talented, this is a group that can be exploited and surrenders big plays – perhaps just the cure the sluggish Vikings offense needs.
Beating the Seahawks and their boisterous fans – known as the 12th Man – won't be easy. Until they're knocked off their perch, they remain one of the favorites to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLI. But a win over Seattle would vault the Vikings back into consideration, making this game one that most people don't think the Vikings will win, but if they do, will get a lot of people's attention.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
KEVIN WILLIAMS VS. CHRIS SPENCER – Heading into Sunday's game, much of the pre-game discussion will be about the exchange of poison pills between the Vikings front office and their Seattle counterparts. The Vikings clearly upset Seahawks officials when they offered Steve Hutchinson a contract that it was clear Seattle wouldn't be able to match without re-working other contracts. While the Hawks remain a little bitter about the scenario, the reality has been much worse, which is why the left guard of the present – Chris Spencer – will be the Matchup to Watch when he's asked to stymie Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams.
Williams, who had a down year last season as he was hampered with injuries, has looked a lot like the player that had double-digit sacks in his first two seasons. He will be drooling at the chance to go after what would have been Seattle's third left guard – behind Hutchinson and Pork Chop Womack.
Spencer, a first-round draft pick in 2005, was expected to be the replacement for center Robbie Tobeck. But, due to the loss of Hutchinson and yet another injury to Womack, Spencer has been pressed into duty at guard. The different job assignments for each line position are pronounced, much less when your job description includes having to replace an All-Pro talent. Spencer has held up pretty well in limited duty, but with Womack out, he's going to be asked to take 60-70 snaps against the Vikings and keep Williams and Co. out of the backfield. It's going to be a tall order and one that the Vikings will make more difficult with blitzes and the occasional stunt.
The best way to make the Seahawks regret not franchising Hutchinson is to beat down his replacement. In this case, that is Spencer. If he isn't up to the challenge, not only will the Vikings stuff the running game between the tackles, but open the door for Williams to make big plays on Matt Hasselbeck that could turn the game around in an instant – making this the Matchup to Watch Sunday.
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