EAGAN — Last year the Minnesota Vikings lost a key game on Monday Night Football against the Seahawks on the road in Seattle. The Vikings’ playoff chances and morale took a hit that night but there was a silver lining: Mike Zimmer’s defense held Russell Wilson to his career lowest quarterback rating and lowest yardage total in 123 starts.
Wilson threw a red zone interception and was sacked twice. His lone highlight was a 40-yard run. Naturally the Vikings’ defense will be focused on Wilson’s signature strength as they prepare to face Seattle’s MVP candidate QB: His playmaking ability when things break down.
“We can’t miss tackles, we have to sack him or he will give his receivers like 13 seconds,” cornerback Xavier Rhodes said. “He might run 30 yards backwards and find someone open. You never know with him but he’s going to eventually do something to get his team in the best situation so [receivers] can get away and get the catch.”
According to Pro Football Focus, Wilson scrambled twice as often in 2018 than the average NFL quarterback and produced 0.17 Expected Points Added per play. Even with an uptick in mobile QBs, few produce as many big plays as Wilson. League average EPA is 0.02.
“He’s a dynamic quarterback,” Rhodes said. “He can run, throw, he’s accurate. We have other quarterbacks who are like that but he’s one of those who you have to pay attention to. You have to be in tight coverage, you have to rush the lanes that he can run through…we have to keep him in the pocket.”
While Wilson’s scrambling should be a concern for the Vikings’ defense, the Seahawks’ superstar still does the majority of his damage on quick throws within the pocket. He created a higher EPA/play last year on first-read throws than scramble plays per PFF and has the third highest rating on throws under 15 yards this season, according to Pro-Football Reference.
“I just think he’s putting the ball on the money a lot this year,” linebacker Anthony Barr said. “Those deep balls have always been good but the intermediate routes, the over routes, he’s been really good in the red zone for them, he’s playing at a very high level.”
Wilson’s accuracy throwing short passes isn’t exactly new but he’s been more effective than ever in 2019. Per PFF, here’s where he has ranked in quarterback rating on throws that take less than 2.5 seconds from snap to release:
The Seahawks’ offense has generally focused around the run game and deep shots downfield off play-action throws but Wilson ranks No. 1 in the NFL when throwing without play-action with a 113.4 rating. Blitzing him has been a fool’s errand as he’s produced a 111.2 rating with an extra rusher (per PFF).
“He’s going to do what he does, great improviser obviously,” Barr said. “He’s been throwing the ball really well this year. Obviously any time he’s outside of the pocket he’s a threat with his legs. We have our work cut out for us.”
Facing a quarterback who has dominated in the quick passing game should concern the Vikings, whose defense has allowed the sixth most first downs in the NFL on throws under 15 yards (per PFR) and a 90.6 quarterback rating overall on short throws.
The best opposing quarterbacks have had a great deal of success underneath against the Vikings. Matthew Stafford posted a 122.3 rating on 38 throws under 15 yards, Aaron Rodgers had a 115.7 rating in Week 2 on quick passes and Dallas’s Dak Prescott managed a 107.5 rating on 36 short throws against the Vikings.
Both Vikings starting corners have struggled in coverage this season with Rhodes allowing an 85.5% completion percentage and 124.6 rating on throws his way and Trae Waynes has given up a 109.5 rating. They will match up with a talented group of receivers in Tyler Lockett, DK Metcalf and Josh Gordon. When Wilson targets Lockett he has a 137.6 rating.
So while Wilson is still dangerous on the ground and when going off schedule, the Vikings’ secondary and linebackers will face their toughest test of the season from the pocket. And with Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter at the top of the NFL in pressures, Seattle’s plan will very likely including getting the ball out fast.