On the most recent Monday night in Seattle, cornerback Xavier Rhodes followed top Seahawks receiver Tyler Lockett in critical moments. The Vikings defense was characteristically stingy, limiting Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to 10 completions, a long of 14 yards and just 14 points. So, the 21-7 loss led to offensive coordinator John DeFilippo’s firing.
Spearheads of these teams look a little different entering this Monday night in Seattle, where both the Vikings and Seahawks are capable of putting on a show worthy of the stage featuring MVP candidates and hefty NFC playoff stakes.
But what was once a strength of this Vikings defense — its coverage — has lapsed while Minnesota surrendered more than 400 yards on average during the last three games before the bye.
Rhodes and the Vikings pass defense left such a poor impression that head coach Mike Zimmer pinpointed it as a problem to which they needed to devote the bye-week time: “That’ll be a big emphasis for us,” he said. Up next is Wilson, whose 5-0 record against the Vikings is his best against any opponent.
His top weapon, Lockett, will be three weeks removed from hospitalization for severe swelling in his leg during a win in San Francisco. His first game back Sunday in Philadelphia saw Lockett serve more as a decoy going 2.5 quarters without a target. Despite missed opportunities in the passing game (rookie DK Metcalf dropped three passes) and 12 penalties, the Seahawks cruised to a win in Philly.
1. Wilson is stating his MVP case through the Seahawks’ three-receiver offense. They’re in it 73% of snaps (third in NFL), and only two teams, the Cowboys and Chiefs, are as successful throwing as the Seahawks (51%) with three receivers, according to Sharp Football. The Vikings, of course, just split games in Dallas and Kansas City that were nail-biters due to inconsistent pass defense surrendering 672 yards and four touchdowns across both.
Even without Lockett contributing much in Philadelphia, Wilson gained 200 yards on 13 completions thanks to silly throws like this 31-yard pass to receiver David Moore (#83). Moore (6-foot) is part of a big three-man rotation Seattle plays at No. 3 receiver with Josh Gordon (6-3) and Malik Turner (6-2).
The Eagles deploy linebacker Nigel Bradham (#53) as a spy on Wilson, which is almost a necessity. Linebacker Anthony Barr did the same on third downs against Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and has previously on Wilson. It was also Barr’s assignment when he broke Aaron Rodgers’ collarbone two years ago.
The chess match lies in how you scheme coverage while taking a man away to cover the quarterback. The Eagles often opted to rush four linemen and spy a linebacker, forcing a single-high safety, as the other safety replaces the linebacker in underneath or man coverage. Against a lone deep Eagles safety, Wilson has the sideline opening for a quick and impeccably-placed throw to Moore for 31 yards.
2. Mike Zimmer recently debuted a Vikings dime package featuring cornerback Holton Hill (#24), allowing a two-deep safety shell while spying Barr. The catch is relying on a three-man rush, but with Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen that shouldn’t often be an issue.
Still, the Vikings need better from outside cornerbacks, including Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mike Hughes (#21), who was beat on this 20-yard pass to Amari Cooper in Dallas.
Safety Anthony Harris (#41) is occupied by another vertical route, leaving Cooper alone with Hughes (#21) during an impressive sideline grab. Wilson and the Seahawks have the talent to do this all game if Vikings defensive backs aren’t making plays on the ball.
3. There are plays to be made against this Seahawks offensive line, which has surrendered 11 sacks in the last two games.
Monday night would be a great time for Vikings nose tackle Linval Joseph to return against Seahawks center Joey Hunt, often overpowered by Eagles nose tackle Fletcher Cox on Sunday. Joseph’s recovery was considered short-term after a knee operation about three weeks ago, but his return remains unclear.
Even if the Vikings play without Joseph, third-year defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson has proven a capable replacement. Hunter and Griffen are set up well against Seahawks right tackle Germain Ifeadi and extra big man George Fant, who played 20 snaps as a tight end in Philly.
Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham (#55) simply made this effort play by running around Fant (#74) for one of the Eagles’ six sacks on Wilson. It was the snap after Moore’s 31-yard catch.
4. Vikings defensive backs have fallen short on contested opportunities this season. That could be a problem against Russell Wilson, who has three of the league’s seven most improbable completions this season, according to NFL’s Next Gen Stats. He’s in his prime with a rare ability to sense and escape pressure before finding an open target downfield. The “scramble drill” is huge for Seattle’s offense, creating what could’ve been a 20-yard completion to Metcalf on the first drive in Philadelphia had the rookie not dropped Wilson’s pass. It helps Seattle’s receiving corps features some height in Metcalf (6-4) and Malik Turner (6-2), recipients of two of the three aforementioned unlikeliest NFL completions.
Turner’s touchdown in Philadelphia — tabbed by the NFL’s numbers gurus as a 13.3% chance of completing — came from a type of gimmicky play the Vikings just fell victim to against Denver when receiver Courtland Sutton completed a 38-yard throw to Tim Patrick.
On first down, Wilson pitches it to running back Chris Carson on an apparent sweep. Carson turns and throws it back to Wilson, who is set up with blocking from a pulling center and a deep route from Turner for the 33-yard touchdown.
5. A five-play sequence illustrated Xavier Rhodes’ highs and lows in the most recent game against the Broncos.
The Vikings could use a post-bye rebound from Rhodes, whom Zimmer credited with playing his best game of the season a few weeks ago in Dallas. A week later, Zimmer made a decision he hadn’t in months — deploying Rhodes to shadow an opponent’s top receiver in the Broncos’ Courtland Sutton.
Coaches want Rhodes to play like a “power forward” cornerback, and he did so against the 6-foot-4 Sutton during this 2nd-and-goal play. Watch Rhodes, isolated to the right on Sutton, still get the deflection despite Sutton boxing him out in the end zone. It was Rhodes’ fifth pass deflected in 11 games.
The Broncos got to the goal line after Rhodes was flagged for his team-worst seventh penalty of the season, a 24-yard pass interference after hand fighting downfield with Sutton. The flag came two plays after this 48-yard jump ball Sutton caught over Rhodes.