The Seahawks' passing game is starting to heat up just as the Vikings' pass defense has taken a step back. Here's a look at one key matchup for Sunday's game:
Seahawks WR Sidney Rice vs. Vikings secondary
Oft-injured WR Sidney Rice is happy that he's healthy finally as he prepares to go against his former Vikings team. There was a tiny bit of animosity with his split, with former head coach Brad Childress not so subtly questioning the timing of Rice's elective hip sugery on the eve of the season and not in January or February, when the rehab time could have been carried out longer. But any ill will Rice might have had surely was eased by the soft landing on a stack of money; he signed a five-year, $41 million deal with the Seahawks.
Although Rice hasn't yet been the explosive player the Seahawks envisioned — in 17 games over the past two seasons with them, he has totaled 60-851-5 — he has started to heat up slightly and become more simpatico with rookie QB Russell Wilson. The two barely had a chance to work together in the offseason as Wilson was second or third on the depth chart, trying to win a job, and Rice missed the majority of time with shoulder injuries.
In the first four games this season, Rice caught 12 passes for 132 yards and one TD. In the past four, he has upped that to 16-235-2 with three catches of 20 yards or longer after catching only one pass of 20 yards or more in the first four.
The Seahawks, whose plays are called by former Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, also have expanded how they are using him. On Rice's nine-yard TD catch against the Lions last week, he lined up in the red zone as the "Y" receiver in the slot (he's typically the "Z" receiver, or flanker, outside) and ran a sail route and separated from man coverage for the score. Two weeks earlier, against the Patriots, Rice scored on a corner-post route — having sold the corner with a catch earlier in the game — by beating the man corner and the deep safety help with vertical speed he still can flash.
For the Vikings, figuring out how to cover Rice and the rest of the Seahawks' receivers will be a challenge. Just as the Seahawks' passing game is waxing, the Vikings' pass "D" is waning. They'll be without their top corner, Chris Cook, who is out indefinitely with a broken arm, which vaults rookie Josh Robinson into a major role.
Watch the tape last week against the Buccaneers, and you'll see Cook blanket WR Mike Williams on the type of fade into the endzone that the Seahawks are likely to feature with Rice if they get inside the 10-yard line with the defense on its heels. Now someone else must defend the 6-foot-4 Rice, who highpoints the fade as well as anyone. When Robinson was asked to cover a similar route against Williams later in the game, he scored.
The rookie has long speed and was often matched vs. Vincent Jackson last week (even when Jackson roamed into the slot), but it's asking a lot of the third-rounder to man up vs. Rice all game. You likely will see SS Jamarca Sanford up in the box to counter the Seahawks' strong run game, leaving FS Harrison Smith as the single-high in a lot of looks. The rookie Smith was a pivotal part of the Vikings' Week Four gameplan to shut down Lions WR Calvin Johnson, almost always lining up over the top of him. You should see similar alignments Sunday in Seattle.
Could Antoine Winfield spend time covering Rice? Yes, but likely not until the Seahawks get well into Minnesota territory or well backed up in their own zone. The Vikings don't want the swift Rice getting in a foot race with the 35-year-old Winfield, as fine a season as he's having in the slot. The Seahawks are likely to try at least one slant with Rice and almost always try to set up plays for later — such as the "sluggo," or slant-and-go — with double moves. The Vikings will be prepared, having seen plenty of Rice and Bevell before.