Wilson-to-Baldwin connection key in SEA-MIN matchup
There were a few people that predicted a Minnesota Vikings’ NFC North championship at the start of the year, but it was far from a popular opinion. But here we are—the regular season is over and the Vikings are division champs. Now, just five weeks after getting stomped on at home by the Seattle Seahawks, they get a chance for some revenge in their first home playoff game since Brett Favre was under center.
The Seahawks had everyone wondering what was wrong with the Legion of Boom after getting off to a 2-4 start this season. However, they proceeded to finish the season 8-2. They’ve been arguably the hottest team in the NFL since a Week 10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, going 6-1 with an average win of 32-14. That included the aforementioned 38-7 beatdown of the very team they are facing on Sunday.
Will the results be the same? Or will the Vikings figure out a way to defeat the streaking Seahawks? Let’s take a look at the good and bad for each team this season, using PFF’s grades and data as our lens, as well as key individual matchups to watch.
Easy enough: Russell Wilson to Doug Baldwin. Since Week 11, the two have combined for 40 receptions on 50 targets for 595 yards, 11 touchdowns, and no interceptions. Nobody has been as accurate in that span as Wilson (83.5 percent). With an overall season grade of 87.4, Wilson ranked fourth among quarterbacks this season, while Baldwin’s grade of 90.9 puts him as the eighth-best receiver.
Edge defense. Specifically, defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. With overall season grades of 89.3 (Bennett) and 87.2 (Avril), the two sit as the sixth and 11th best edge defender in football this season. They’ve combined for 22 sacks, 32 hits, and 99 pressures against opposing quarterbacks. They also both finished the year ranked in the top five in run stop percentage, at 8.0 and 7.6, respectively.
It’s pretty incredible what this Seattle offense has been doing, considering the men they have blocking up front. As a unit, the offensive line finished the season with a 74.3 pass blocking efficiency, the fifth-worst in the NFL. Three of their linemen (Justin Britt, Garry Gilliam and J.R. Sweezy) finished with an overall grades below 50.2 (on a scale of 1–100). Russell Okung was their only lineman to finish with of a mediocre grade of 78.2, and he’s currently dealing with an injury.
It’s hard to find a weakness on the Seahawks’ defense, but the biggest one has to be their corners not named Richard Sherman. DeShawn Shead has struggled this year, finishing the season with an overall grade of 43.6 (100th out of 119 corners). Jeremy Lane hasn’t been anything to write home about, either, since he returned, grading out at 67.7, just below average.
QB Russell Wilson (87.4): Wilson finished the year as the second-most accurate QB, at 78.4 percent, and threw the third-most accurate deep balls, at 49.2 percent. His 15 touchdowns on deep balls were the most among all QBs this season.
The run game has been stellar for the Vikings this season, as Adrian Peterson once again came away with the rushing yards crown. Peterson finished this season with an 82.4 rushing grade, the seventh-best mark among RBs. He was helped by a strong run blocking offensive line as well, led by C Joe Berger and his second-best 89.5 overall season grade. Peterson averaged 2.2 yards before contact per rush, the seventh-most among all RBs with at least 100 carries.
The Vikings boast a very strong pass rush, and have been getting pressure on opposing QBs all season long. They are led by edge rusher Everson Griffen, who has 11 sacks, 16 hits and 44 hurries, but have gotten contributions up and down the defense. Overall, the Vikings have recorded 48 sacks, 65 hits and 227 hurries this season.
Pass blocking has been the Vikings’ biggest issue on offense, as they are one of the poorest in the league at protecting the QB. Their combined pass blocking efficiency of just 71.9 was the second-worst in the league this season. One specific player who had a tough season was G Brandon Fusco, who’s 53 total pressures allowed and PBE of 92.2 were both second-worst among all guards. But he was hardly alone, as only G Michael Harris finished the year with a slightly above average pass blocking grade.
While the Vikings’ defensive line is great at rushing the passer, they are far less so at stopping the run. If DT Linval Joseph can play, that’s a huge boost, as he was the third-best run stopping interior defender in football this season. But, if he can’t take the field, then the Vikings will have some work to do, as starting defensive linemen Griffen, Brian Robison, and Tom Johnson all finished below average in run defense this year.
FS Harrison Smith (92.7): Smith was our highest-graded safety this season, despite missing three games. He was targeted, on average, every 48.6 snaps, and allowed a mere 0.20 yards per coverage snap, fourth-best in the league among safeties.
Matchups to watch
WR Doug Baldwin (90.9) vs. CB Captain Munnerlyn (83.8): Munnerlyn was thrown at a ton in the slot (league-leading 73 targets), but held up well, averaging 9.1 coverage snaps per reception and just 1.10 yards per cover snap. Baldwin in the slot, though, averaged 5.9 routes run per reception, and averaged a ridiculous 2.47 yards per route run to go along with 12 touchdowns.
RT T.J. Clemmings (38.4) vs. DE Michael Bennett (89.3): This one is a little different than the other matchup. Bennett was, by all accounts, one of the best edge defenders this entire season. He had a league-leading 83 total pressures among 4-3 defensive ends, plus the third-best run stop percentage. Clemmings’ pass blocking efficiency of 92.4 was the fourth-lowest among all tackles, and he graded even worst against the run. The point here, is, that he’ll need lots of help to deal with Bennett.
Paths to victory
Seattle can win if: Their dominant edge rushers can get pressure without extra help, and force Teddy Bridgewater into making critical mistakes and bad throws—and if the Russell Wilson-to-Doug Baldwin connection continues as it has the last month and a bit.
Minnesota can win if: They can get Peterson going early and force the Seahawks’ defense to play the run first to set up some big play action plays over the top, and if Harrison Smith and the rest of the Vikings secondary can lock down Seahawks’ receivers and give their strong defensive line time to get to Wilson.