Return of Vikings' defensive stars will aid offense against Seahawks
One of the most intriguing matchups of the first weekend of the NFL postseason comes in Minnesota, where the Seattle Seahawks roll into town to take on the Vikings for the second time this year.
The first meeting was a 38-7 blowout in favor of the Seahawks, but the Vikings team this week should bear little resemblance to the one that was easily pushed around that day. Linval Joseph didn’t play in that game, and within 11 snaps, they had also lost Harrison Smith and Anthony Barr. That effectively picked off the single-most important player from each level of the Vikings’ defense, and left them completely ill-equipped to deal with Russell Wilson and the Seahawks’ offense.
Barr and Smith are back in action, and Joseph is likely to play this week, having sat out the season finale in Green Bay.
The most obvious question to address here is, “How does this affect the matchup against Wilson and the Seattle offense, especially with Marshawn Lynch back?” However, I want to focus on what it does to the other side of the ball.
The Vikings are at their best when Adrian Peterson is running strong and Teddy Bridgewater has something to work in tandem with, rather than carrying the offense himself. Against Seattle in the first game, Peterson had just 18 rushing yards, and they came on only eight carries. He only played 20 snaps in the game, as the Vikings were forced to chase the scoreboard from early on.
Peterson actually played two fewer snaps than Jerick McKinnon in that game, because McKinnon and Asiata are bigger factors in the passing attack than he is.
If Minnesota’s defense does a better job of holding its own against Seattle’s offense this time around, then the Vikings can lean more on Peterson, and we will see a fairer contest on that side of the ball, too.
What is interesting is that the Seattle defense is one of the best in the league at countering the things that Minnesota does best.
The Vikings like to run man-blocking more than any other run concept (34.4 percent of their backfield carries), and only the Arizona Cardinals run a greater percentage of it league-wide. The reason they like to run it is pretty obvious when you look at the numbers. When running man run concepts, the Vikings are averaging 6.5 yards per carry this season, compared to Peterson’s overall average of 4.5.
When you throw in lead runs with no zone blocking in front of them, the Vikings are averaging 6.0 yards per carry, which is the best mark in the NFL by a significant margin.
The Seahawks, though, are excellent at defending this concept, and have only given up 3.3 yards per carry over the season. This is going to pit strength against strength in this area of the game.
But what do we mean by “man-blocking” run concept?
Take this play from Minnesota against Detroit:
At the snap, the Vikings double-team both interior Lions defenders in an attempt to generate some movement at the line of scrimmage and work some space for Peterson. These double teams will remain driving until they meet linebackers, either by reaching the second level or by the linebacker coming to meet them in the hole. Which blocker peels off to take the linebacker is determined by which gap the linebacker attacks.
In essence, this is hat-on-hat football, designed to open some room at the line of scrimmage and allow the running back to find space and make something happen. Peterson is the perfect kind of runner to exploit this blocking because he has the quick jump-cut to move laterally through the disjointed defensive front and break outside to space, which is where his big carries happen.
On this particular play, the Lions blow their gap assignments up front after the Vikings put a player in motion pre-snap. The linebackers shift to counter this, but so does the strong safety, leaving them overloaded to one side of the defense and nobody defending the weak side B-gap—the gap Peterson ultimately hits and gets a good gain before being brought down.
By contrast, take a look at what the Seahawks’ defense is able to do to the same concept against an offensive line even as good as Dallas:
Note first of all the gap integrity, with no obvious hole to hit (unlike the play Peterson faced above), but also how quickly the Seattle defense is all up at the line like one solid defensive wall.
That is a trend when watching the Seahawks’ defense on tape against this run concept. They don’t typically line up with their linebackers any closer to the line, but they attack the run quicker than most teams, possibly because the linebackers aren’t reading the backfield, but are instead keying on the offensive line. As soon as they read the run blocking, they are all coming downhill at speed and create a solid wall of bodies at the line of scrimmage, rather than allowing the double teams to generate movement and create a staggered front along the line of scrimmage that creates gaps for the running back to find space in.
Seattle also has the benefit of playing a cover-1/3 look defense, which helps them crowd an extra body into the box against the run. With a single high safety and one closer to the line of scrimmage, they can, in effect, generate an extra linebacker in the box much of the time in the shape of SS Kam Chancellor or Kelcie McCray, who has been starting in his stead since he got injured.
Arizona, as we mentioned earlier, runs man more than any other team in the NFL, and unlike the Vikings, prefer to do so from heavy formations and tight alignments. But even when they lined up with 11-personnel (three wide receivers) as they did on this play, the Seahawks have a seven-man box and a full complement of defensive backs to cover the three receivers because of McCray.
The reason that is important is because the Vikings use 11-personnel the most of any personnel grouping (33 percent of their defensive snaps). The Seahawks can’t rely on Minnesota running with heavy packages the way the Cardinals liked to do, and need to be able to stack the box against Peterson with their nickel defense.
Because of the scheme they run in coverage, they are capable of doing that in a way many teams aren’t, and Peterson is going to be running against well-organized, gap-sound fronts all day long.
Against Seattle in the first meeting, the Vikings never really got an opportunity to implement their game plan on offense, and had to go away from their bread and butter very early on. Getting their best defensive players back on the field doesn’t just make that side of the ball an enticing matchup, but gives them a platform to actually remain in the game on an even keel and be able to deploy their ideal game plan.
Minnesota’s chance to win this game rests in coming out on top when they pit their best run plays against the Seattle defense. If they can come close to the kind of production they have had over the year and avoid being held to much smaller gains, then they have a major chance for success. If Seattle cuts Minnesota’s production on these plays in half, as would happen if they fare no better against this Seahawks D than anybody else, then the Vikings are in trouble.