If there has been an unspoken advantage the Vikings defense has had this season, it could best be summed up by the quarterbacks the team has faced. For the most part, the Vikings have faced quarterbacks with limited experience.
Through their first nine games, they have faced seven different QBs. Aaron Rodgers is in just his second year as an NFL starter. Matthew Stafford, the other quarterback they have faced twice, is a rookie. Brady Quinn of Cleveland had just a handful of career starts when they faced him in the season opener. Alex Smith was an off-and-on starter, but has never been a full-time guy for an entire season. Joe Flacco is in only his second NFL year.
To date, the Vikings have faced only two experienced quarterbacks. Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers handed them their only loss, and Kyle Boller and Marc Bulger play for the hapless Rams. But Sunday, the Vikings are going to face Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck – an 11-year veteran who is among the most seasoned signal-callers in the game. While the Vikings defense has been able to attack the younger quarterbacks by giving them looks they haven't seen in film, there isn't much a vet like Hasselbeck hasn't faced on the field.
"He's seen just about every (defensive) look there is," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "It's going to be harder to screw with him as far as looks and blitzes go. All in all, it's going to come down to the same thing it has all year – the guys up front getting after it and the guys in the back end covering and working together."
Part of the plan with a quarterback like Hasselbeck is for defenders to not to tip their hand too early. As Vikings fans have seen this year with Brett Favre, when a defense indicates where pressure will be coming from, he is adept at either checking out of the play or finding the hot read. It has frustrated many a Vikings opponent this season. Linebacker Ben Leber said there is a similarity with Favre and Hasselbeck in that it is much more difficult to fool a been-there, done-that quarterback than some of the young up-and-comers they have faced this season.
"It's going to put more of a premium on what we can do to disguise coverages," Leber said. "He's seen every look. He knows what to expect. He knows where the pressure is going to come from if you show it too early and knows where the ball should go. With a guy like that, you have to hold your disguises a little bit longer and try to confuse him – which is tougher – and execute a little bit more."
Like Favre, who Hasselbeck backed up in Green Bay before being traded for by Mike Holmgren when he left the Packers for Seattle, Hasselbeck was weaned on the old school West Coast Offense just a couple branches up the Bill Walsh coaching tree.
"A quarterback that knows that thing forward and backward," Vikings coach Brad Chidlress said of Hasselbeck. "He would be akin to Brett from the standpoint that he learned the system in the same room. It's very similar. … I think he's an active guy. He's an accurate guy. He can move around. I had the opportunity to coach him in the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. He's a very bright-eyed guy. He gets it."
The West Coast offense is predicated on short passing, quick reads and finding the soft spots in defenses. That intimate knowledge of the system is something that makes Hasselbeck a threat every time he takes the field.
"With him, it's the decision-making – just knowing where to go with the ball," Leber said. "They don't do a whole lot of seven-step drops and throwing it deep down the field. His ability to take three- and five-step drops and get the ball out quickly so he's not getting hit, you don't have a lot of opportunities to get sacks. Just knowing where the ball is supposed to go is his strength."
The Vikings expect to see a steady diet of short passes that will test their ability to read, react and snuff out plays before they can get fired up. Up until last week, the Vikings had been a little sloppy in terms of bringing down runners and receivers immediately when they get the ball. If they do that against a quarterback like Hasselbeck, it could turn into a long day defensively.
"It puts more pressure on our tackling," Greenway said. "We have to tackle well. If the ball's coming out of his hand quickly, usually it's going to be a route to is easier to complete. It's just about eliminating yards after the catch, especially on third downs, and getting off the field."
While the short passing game is pretty much the bread and butter of the Seahawks offense, they can and do take some deep shots – which will make the job of the secondary that much more difficult. Cornerback Benny Sapp said that the similarities between their offense and the one the Vikings face in practice aren't that many. In his mind, it's all about the D-backs doing their homework, getting their reads and not jumping routes anticipating a short, timing pass.
"It isn't more difficult, because if you know how to play to their scheme, you can take it to them at their own game," Sapp said. "You can't get too caught up in expecting that everything is going to be short passes, slants or crossing routes that hit quick because they can and do throw deep at times. It's all about getting pressure and trying to take away what they want to do on a given play."
The onus will be on the back seven to take care of their business, but, for the front four, it's going to be business as usual. Rarely at a loss words, Pat Williams said that, while things may change for the players behind him, he's going to line up only a couple of feet away from Hasselbeck at the snap of the ball and his goal is quite simple – get closer than that.
"We aren't going to try to fool him," Williams said. "We're going to do what the Vikings do. We're coming after him. He's a veteran, but he knows what it's like to have a defense like ours coming after him. We have our game plan and we're going to run it – regardless of what he does. They're going show up Sunday on our home field. We'll see what happens."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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