The Seahawks host a fellow NFC playoff contender on Monday night with the Minnesota Vikings coming to town. To learn more about the Vikings, who are making their second trip to CenturyLink Field in as many seasons, we reached out to Vikings.com team reporter Eric Smith with five questions about this week’s opponent:
Q: What’s gotten into Kirk Cousins this year? Not that he was bad last season by any means, but it appears he has made quite a leap in his second season in Minnesota.
Smith: A lot of people around the league seem surprised by the way Cousins is playing, but this is what the Vikings envisioned when they signed him as a free agent 20 months ago. Cousins has always had the talent and work ethic to go on this type of run — he has an 18:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and has thrown for 2,020 yards in his past seven games. But with a great collection of skill players around him, plus great coaching, Cousins is playing at his highest level and is on pace for the best statistical season of his eight-year career.
Vikings Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski was Cousins’ position coach in 2018, and the Vikings brought in Gary Kubiak to serve as a mentor to both Stefanski and help revamp the offense. Both coaches have helped Cousins, who is thriving off play-action passes and has evolved into a clear leader on offense.
Plus, with playmakers such as Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs on the field, Cousins knows he simply needs to get their ball in their hands and watch them go to work.
All eyes will be on Cousins on Monday night. If he can get a signature win on the road in primetime against a great Seattle team, the whole league just might change their perception of him.
Q: Following up on that, as good as Cousins has been, one could argue that he isn’t even his team’s MVP. Just how much has Dalvin Cook meant to the offense this year?
Smith: Cook has done pretty much everything you can ask of a running back so far this season. And it’s been a joy for Vikings fans to watch as the talented running back played just 15 games over his first two seasons due to injuries.
Now fully healthy, Cook has consistently shown what fans caught glimpses of during his first two seasons. Entering Week 13, he’s one of three running backs with 1,000 rushing yards (1,017) and is second in yards from scrimmage (1,472) behind Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey. Cook has 11 touchdowns after combining for just four his first two seasons.
He is also a threat out of the backfield, having helped make the Vikings screen game extremely effective. He has racked up 45 catches for 455 yards with an average of 10.1 yards per reception.
And, Cook’s skillset has opened up the field for Cousins. With defenses keying in on the running back, there have been numerous touchdown passes where the defense gets drawn in on a fake to Cook, only for Cousins to launch a deep pass to Diggs for a long score.
Q: Mike Zimmer’s teams are often known for their defense, and while the numbers look pretty solid overall this season, it appears the Vikings are somewhat susceptible to the pass. How big of a concern is that heading into a game against Russell Wilson and Seattle’s explosive passing game?
Smith: A big concern, and something the Vikings coaching staff spent a considerable amount of time on during the bye. Here’s a stat that sums up Minnesota’s frustration in that area:
The Vikings defense has already allowed 40 passing plays of at least 20 yards in 2019. Minnesota allowed 43 such plays in the entire 2018 season, 35 such plays in 2017 and 41 such plays in 2016. So, with five games left, the defense is on pace to allow nearly 60 of those chunk plays this season.
Vikings defensive backs, and the coaching staff, have consistently said that players have usually been in the right position to make a play… they just haven’t made them. That will need to change over the final month of the season, and especially in the playoffs.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer spoke glowingly this week of Wilson and his ability to throw the deep ball. The Vikings defense is in for a major test against one of the league’s top quarterbacks.
Q: Much like the Seahawks, the Vikings are in a tough battle at the top of their division. With two West Coast trips and three division games, including one against the first-place Packers, to close out the year, how small is the margin of error for Minnesota?
Smith: The Vikings have everything to play for over these final five games, especially after Green Bay’s loss to San Francisco in Week 12.
Minnesota and Green Bay are both 8-3 with five games remaining, including a head-to-head matchup on Dec. 23 at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Packers won the Week 2 meeting between the NFC North foes and currently hold the tiebreaker.
If the Vikings win out (and that will be no easy task), they win the NFC North and get a home playoff game. But a 13-3 record might also be good enough for a possible first-round bye, depending on what happens around the rest of the NFC.
The Vikings currently hold a two-game cushion in the Wild-Card race on the next closest team — the 6-5 Rams, who have a daunting December schedule. So the Vikings are seemingly in a good spot for a playoff spot and are likely in with three wins in their final five games.
However, the more they keep winning, the better the chances are for a division title. And if the Vikings lose any game, they are likely looking at a probable Wild-Card spot.
Q: Aside from the some of the bigger names like Cousins, Cook, Adam Thielen, Danielle Hunter, Harrison Smith and Stefon Diggs, who are a couple of players who you think could be X-factors in this one?
Smith: Good question, and I’m going to go with one on each side of the ball.
Defensively, I’ll go with safety Anthony Harris. The guy next to Harrison Smith always seems to get lost in the shuffle, but Harris has made quite the name for himself in his first full season as a starter.
He currently leads the team with three interceptions, and is regarded as one of the smartest players on the defense. He joined the team as an undrafted free agent in 2015 from the University of Virginia, and has worked his way up from special-teams standout to a trusted starter.
Offensively, I’ll be watching Vikings left tackle Riley Reiff on Monday night. He joined the Vikings as a free agent before the 2017 season and was stellar in his first season, but dropped off a bit in 2018 as he dealt with injuries. He’s back to playing well this season.
He’ll have a tall task in front of him, especially if Jadeveon Clowney is healthy and ready to go. Cousins — like most quarterbacks — is at his best when he has time to throw. According to Next Gen Stats, Cousins ranks second in the NFL with an average of 2.98 seconds to throw per pass attempt.
Reiff is a team captain and an integral part of the offensive line. If he can do his part and keep Cousins clean, that will help the entire Vikings offense stay on schedule in Seattle.
The Seahawks and the Vikings will meet this Monday at CenturyLink Field on Monday Night Football for the thirteenth game of the 2019 season. Take a look back at photos from past games between the two teams.