Opponent Spotlight — Preseason Week 2

Vikings Meet Their Match
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Twenty seven yards and a few feet is all that separates the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks. Had Blair Walsh made that fateful field goal last January, the Vikings would be playing the role of older brother. Instead, they’re forced to look up and admire all that the Seahawks have accomplished in a few short year; a Super Bowl title, NFC West domination, and unmatched home field advantage.

But a closer look reveals the Vikings and Seahawks to be more “twin” than “stepbrother.” From their defensive-minded head coaches to their ground-first approaches on offense, the newfound NFC rivals share plenty in common. Before the teams’ playoff matchup last season, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll acknowledged the parallels between Minnesota and Seattle; particularly, between himself and Vikings ‘captain’ Mike Zimmer.

“There’s such a similarity in the formula that we both represent as defensive guys and former coordinators,” Carroll said, per Vikings.com. “I really appreciate it because I see — because we’ve been successful at putting out this formula of playing defense and special teams and the running game, and they’re doing the same thing.”

In some regards, Zimmer has built his team in the same mold as the Seahawks. The defense is relatively simple, but that simplicity allows his players to react more quickly than most defensive units. The offense controls the clock and pace of the game through the run. And on the sidelines, Zimmer coaches with a unique personality; one that defines his roster much in the way Carroll’s does in Seattle. These are all traits that could describe the Seahawks, but the Vikings are a distinctly “Zimmer” team, built to match Seattle in any environment.

Tonight, the franchises reunite for the first time since playing in the third-coldest game in NFL history. While the stakes may not be as high, there are certainly motivating factors that make this game worth a watch. It’s a preseason tilt, but if both teams meet expectations during the regular season, a playoff rematch isn’t out of the question. Thus, it’s critical to understand what makes the Seahawks ‘tick.’

In the first “Opponent Spotlight” of the year, we’ll analyze tape from the opposing team’s most recent game; identifying concepts, schemes, and strategies the Vikings must master come Sunday morning (or in this case, Thursday night).

Offense

Play No. 1
  • 1st and 10 at SEA 37
  • (10:02 – 1st) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass short left to D.Baldwin to SEA 48 for 11 yards (S.Nelson)

The Seahawks ran the football nearly as often as the Vikings last season, but were also far more successful through the air. Although Football Outsiders ranked both teams as having two of the league’s worst pass-protecting offensive lines, Seattle finished the season as the better of the two in multiple passing statistics.

Unlike Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner, Darrell Bevell schemed to the strengths of his personnel. Where Turner continued to call seven-step drops, Bevell incorporated more read-option concepts into his game plans. Where Turner became more predictable, Bevell switched things up, finding ways to maximize Russell Wilson‘s strengths as a mobile passer.

These concepts are evident in the play above, a first-and-ten situation that finds the Seahawks in a pass-first formation. The offense lines up in 11-personnel, with the running back offset to Wilson’s right. At the snap, Wilson appears to hand the ball to Christine Michael. In this situation, though, Wilson is simply feigning the read-option; he was never going to give the ball to Michael.

The “action” holds the middle linebacker in the center of the field and creates a hole in the coverage. The Kansas City Chiefs are running a Cover-2 Man concept, with both cornerbacks and both safeties locked in man coverage on the receivers and tight end. As soon as Wilson pulls the ball from Michael’s gut, he turns his eyes to Doug Baldwin running a seam route up the field. The middle linebacker, responsible for Hook-to-Curl on his side of the field, stops his feet and allows Baldwin to run free behind him.

Wilson delivers a strike and the Seahawks move the chains for a first down. It’s a simple pitch-and-catch that not only does its job, but forces the Chiefs to respect the read-option. Wilson was always going to pass in this situation, but the Chiefs didn’t know that; this indecisiveness gives the Seahawks an advantage over many of their opponents. They can either run traditional ground concepts — as indicated in the example below — or rely on the read-option and Wilson’s athleticism.

Play No. 2
  • 1st and 10 at SEA 48
  • (9:36 – 1st) (No Huddle) C.Michael up the middle to KC 43 for 9 yards (R.Wilson)

The very next play, Bevell trots out 12-personel, with two tight ends to the right of the formation and two wide receivers bunched to the left. Wilson is under center, with Michael eight yards in the backfield. If these were the Vikings, defenses would expect something like Power or Stretch to the strong side of the formation.

But these are the Seahawks, and long-developing run plays aren’t the bread-and-butter of Bevell’s playbook. At the snap, Wilson opens to his left and hands the ball directly to Michael, who meets him three yards in the backfield. It’s a Blast through the middle of the offensive line, which executes its collective blocks to perfection.

Green lines in the first image indicate the line’s blocking assignments; the outside tight end is responsible for scooping the linebacker, and the inner tight end is responsible for down-blocking and scooping the defensive end. The right tackle scoops the defensive tackle on his outside shade, and the center and right guard double-team the nose tackle to the middle linebacker. On the left side of the line, the guard and tackle drive block the defenders in the gap.

Kansas City’s failure is the result of poor physicality. The Seahawks get a “hat on a hat,” leaving no man in the box unblocked and giving Michael a clear path to the first down. The only unblocked player, Marcus Peters, fails to wrap Michael up and allows the running back to gain nine yards. Seattle simply outmuscled the Chiefs’ defense, running the ball right through the middle of the line of scrimmage.

Keys for the Vikings
  • Maintain gap discipline: This is especially important for Everson Griffen and the rest of the defensive ends, who excelled when asked to defend the read-option in January. Griffen finished the NFC Wild Card Game with six tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss, and four quarterback hits. In Zimmer’s scheme, gap discipline is key, and Griffen is a perfect example for Minnesota’s younger pass rushers.
  • Read your “keys:” Linebackers shouldn’t focus on the quarterback. To gauge whether the play is a run or a pass, their eyes should immediately go to the center or an unblocked lineman. These “keys” will reveal the type of play, and it’s up to the linebackers to react quickly. The Chiefs suffered when reading Wilson, who is a master manipulator under center. Anthony Barr and Minnesota’s corps won’t do the same.
  • Be physical in the trenches: Minnesota’s run defense was poor against Cincinnati at all levels. To beat the Seahawks, they’ll need to be physical up front, shed second-level blocks, and locate the ballcarrier before he hits the hole. Seattle’s offense is simple to defend when players stick to their assignments, and doing so will free Shamar Stephen, Danielle Hunter, and company to play with little hesitation.
  • Play to the whistle: Don’t assume a play is over until the whistle blows.

Defense

Play No. 1
  • 1st and 10 at SEA 49
    (14:54 – 1st) (Shotgun) A.Smith pass short right to D.Harris to SEA 44 for 5 yards (B.Wagner)

The Seahawks run a basic Cover-3 system that relies on the athleticism of its defenders to succeed. Coverages, blitzes, and assignments aren’t difficult to identify, but it’s the collective speed of all 11 players that makes it so hard to beat.

Alex Smith, for all of his criticism, understands how to attack Seattle’s defense. As shown in the first image, the Chiefs are running a Verticals concept with two underneath curls. The running back swings to the left and the No. 1 receiver at the bottom of the screen runs a quick hitch; they’re technically targets, but they’re in the back of Smith’s mind.

Smith knows that the cornerbacks are each responsible for a deep third of the field, along with the single-high safety (not pictured). The linebackers and Earl Thomas, lined head-up over the No. 2 receiver, are responsible for hook-to-curl, an area of the field eight yards from the line of scrimmage. While the defense appears to line up in man coverage, the snap reveals a different look; Cover-3.

The cornerbacks bail, the linebackers drop, and suddenly, there are holes underneath. Both crossers settle in these gaps between linebackers, giving Smith an easy pitch-and-catch for the first down completion. Obviously, the defenders have the ability to act on their own free will — Sherman jumping a route, for example — but when executed as drawn up, the defense can be exploited.

Short passes won’t beat the Seahawks forever, though; a linebacker will smother a tight end, the pass rush will get home, the quarterback will thrown an ill-placed ball. Eventually, the speed will overtake clever play-calling and trickery. The Chiefs finished the drive with a touchdown, but not before the pass rush found Smith and Seattle’s defenders smothered the run game.

It’s critical that an offensive line protect the quarterback and drive defenders off of the football.

Play No. 2
  • 1st and 10 at SEA 33
  • (13:44 – 1st) S.Ware up the middle to SEA 24 for 9 yards (K.Wright)

Kansas City shows Seattle a very “Minnesota” look — the I-Formation out of 21-perssonel. The Chiefs intend to punish the Seahawks inside, and that’s exactly what they do. At the snap, the left guard pulls and sprints to the right side of the formation, and the fullback leads to the outside hole. The offensive line blocks down as a unit, washing the defense out of the intended running lane — this is Power.

The guard’s job is to serve as a lead blocker through the hole, and the fullback is responsible for kicking out the first threat outside of the tight end. They’re identified with a red circle in the first image, as is the running back’s path with the yellow arrows. Like the Seahawks in the previous example, the Chiefs get a “hat on a hat,” blocking every single defender in the box.

When blocked correctly, Power is a play that should feel condensed, but is surprisingly easy for running backs to read. Here, the back finds the crease and cuts back, reading the backside of the blockers down the field; if he sees a blocker’s bottom, he knows to cut in that direction. This results in a nine-yard gain and an easy second-and-short situation for the offense.

Before the ball is snapped, the offense wins the mental battle with Earl Thomas, arguably the NFL’s smartest safety. Schemed into the run play is a fake ‘Run-or-Pass Option’ (RPO), with the slot receiver running what appears to be a bubble screen. Smith is never going to throw the bubble screen, but the action catches Thomas’s eyes and holds him too close to the line of scrimmage. This essentially takes Thomas out of the play and gives the Chiefs one less player to block.

Keys for the Vikings
  • Take what the defense gives you: Teddy Bridgewater doesn’t need to attack the Seahawks deep; throw the ball to Jerick McKinnon and Stefon Diggs in space underneath. The Seahawks dare offenses to attack the boundaries, but playing it safe would benefit Minnesota’s offense tonight.
  • Bring Sparano’s attitude to the field: Last week’s showing by the offensive line was disappointing. This week, they have a chance to redeem themselves against an elite front-seven. If the Vikings can impart Sparano’s tough-guy attitude onto the Seahawks, there should be plenty of room for McKinnon and the running backs to move.
  • Win the chess match: Make the Seahawks think and attack their weaknesses. Seattle has always had an issue defending the middle of the field, and that’s exasperated when an offense schemes accordingly. Norv Turner has the tight ends in Kyle Rudolph, MyCole Pruitt, and David Morgan to give the Seahawks fits, IF he chooses to do so.

The Seahawks are a beatable team, and the Vikings were this close to doing so last January. Tonight’s game may not mean much now, but an early preview of a potential NFC Championship opponent is an opportunity the Vikings can’t afford to waste.