When the Vikings opened the 2002 season, it was hoped that a win in Seattle in the fourth week could send the Vikings into their bye week with a 3-1 record or perhaps even 4-0 with an opening-day upset of the Bears. With that possibility gone, the Vikings are now looking simply to build momentum heading into the bye against the NFC's newest team.
The Seahawks expected a chance to compete for the Super Bowl when coach Mike Holmgren was lured away from the Packers but have yet to see that happen. In fact, like the Vikings, Seattle is looking to get back into contention to be considered a playoff team after also starting 0-3.
One of the primary reasons has been the quarterback position. Matt Hasselbeck was handed the starting job after being traded from the Packers but has failed to live up to expectations. So, when veteran Trent Dilfer got his shot, he grabbed it. An injury sidelined Dilfer in the preseason, but he's back and looking to begin a new winning streak — which had extended 15 games before his loss to Arizona in Week 2.
The player expected to be the focus of the offense is running back Shaun Alexander. He was so impressive replacing Ricky Watters last year when the veteran was injured that the Seahawks never re-signed Watters. It's his show now, but he got off to a slow start and has forced Seattle to alter its offensive scheme. When he is on, he's as good as they get. He has the combination of speed and power to get the job done and is a good receiver. For that reason, only rookie Maurice Morris is on the roster as a backup. Mack Strong is the fullback, but his job is pretty much confined to blocking for Alexander.
The wide receiver corps is young and talented but still lacking in savvy. Darrell Jackson is only in his third year, but he has become the leader of that unit. His 11-catch, 170-yard performance earlier this year is a testament to his ability as a go-to receiver. He's joined by last year's 2001 first-round pick Koren Robinson, another speed receiver who will test the Vikings secondary. Veteran Bobby Engram and third-year man James Williams figure in during multiple-receiver sets.
At tight end, Seattle is very high on rookie Jerramy Stevens, another first-round pick, but for now Itulu Mili, who had touchdowns in each of the first two games, remains the goal-line and short-yardage option at TE.
The offensive line has been shuffled, much like the Vikings line, in the early part of the season because of a holdout at left tackle. Former Pro Bowler Walter Jones didn't sign until after Week 2 but is expected to start against the Vikings. His return will allow Seattle to shuffle three players who were out of position back to normal spots — Jerry Wunsch or Floyd Womack to right tackle, Chris Gray and Steve Hutchinson to guard and Robbie Tobeck at center. Former first-rounder Chris McIntosh was supposed to be the starting RT, but he's been sidelined, so even with the return of Jones, there will be shuffling on the line until he gets into game shape.
Defensively is where Seattle has seen its biggest problems. Charlie Garner and Thomas Jones, not players known for big rushing days, each hit nearly 150 yards against the Seahawks, and the Vikings will look to do the same. Up front, John Randle is expected to make his return to the lineup after missing all of the preseason and the first three games with surgery. He may not start, but he is itching to get a shot at his former team. He will join Chad Eaton at defensive tackle, along with ends Lamar King and Antonio Cochran. Neither of the DE starters were full-time players last year and, with Randle still not in the proper shape to play every down, look for Brandon Mitchell to see plenty of playing time as Randle tries to work back into shape.
The linebackers have been under an overhaul as well. The team released MLB Levon Kirkland in the preseason, and the change is obvious. On the outside, Chad Brown and Anthony Simmons are strong, quick, athletic types who have a lot of good instincts, but Simmons missed last week with an ankle injury and might miss the Vikings matchup, too. In the middle, however, Isaiah Kacyvenski — a second-year man from Harvard — is learning on the job. He has been blamed as one of the reasons teams have run so freely on Seattle, and he is a player who will have to improve for Seattle to compete.
In the secondary, Seattle has talent, with Shawn Springs, Doug Evans and Ken Lucas as the corners, and Reggie Tongue and Marcus Robertson at the safeties. Evans has started the year as a nickel back and situational player, but with Springs' injury history, Evans may spend more time on the field than any of the corners. Seattle may be one of the few teams confident enough to try to single cover Randy Moss on more than a handful of plays, and it could be critical for Daunte Culpepper to read those situations.
Both the Vikings and Seattle came into the 2002 season with high hopes and a schedule they thought looked favorable coming in. Now, heading into their bye weeks, both teams need a win to take some time off with confidence. Seeing as one of them can't win this game, it will make what looked to be a relatively meaningless game back in April awfully critical for both teams now.
Greg Biekert vs. Isaiah Kacyvenski — OK, Biekert and Kacyvenski won't be on the field at the same time, but as the middle linebackers for each team they will have the burden of winning the game on their shoulders.
Early in the season, the Vikings have shown the ability not only to run but run well. The Vikings overwhelmed a Bears defense that was ranked No. 2 against the rush last season. That was followed up with a 213-yard performance vs. Buffalo. With Seattle allowing substandard NFL rushers like Charlie Garner and Thomas Jones — good, but not great running backs — to pile up more than 300 yards between them, the Vikings have identified the running game as the defensive weakness. It will be up to Kacyvenski to make the reads and stop Michael Bennett, Doug Chapman, Moe Williams — and perhaps most importantly, Daunte Culpepper — from finding open running room.
In contrast, the Seahawks are still waiting to get Shaun Alexander going. In 12 starts last year, he had 20 or more carries nine times and had 87 or more rushing yards in eight games. If Seattle hopes to contend this season, Alexander has to be the focus of the offense. Unlike Seattle, the Vikings did a solid job of shutting down Anthony Thomas and Travis Henry in their first two games, making the offenses go to the pass to be successful. Much of that success was the result of Biekert's ability to make the defensive calls and hit the right gaps at the right time to shut down the running game.
On paper, Seattle would be given the advantage in the running game, but, considering what opposing offenses have done to the Seahawks while the Vikings usually have been able to control the running lanes, that could be misleading. Biekert and Kacyvenski will be the two most important defenders on the field Sunday.
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