Former Seahawks tight end John Carlson (89) hasn't had the most successful tenure in Minnesota, but he broke out with 98 yards receiving and a touchdown on seven catches two weeks ago against Dallas. (AP)
By Brady Henderson
A quarterback carousel, a porous defense and some key injuries have been a recipe for a 2-7 start for the Vikings, who are double-digit underdogs heading into Sunday's game against the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field.
For a closer look at the team, I reached out to Minneapolis Star Tribune writer Mark Craig, who was nice enough to take part in this week's edition of "Double Coverage."
Henderson: I know the Vikings' quarterback situation has been a mess this season, but I also notice that their defense is ranked in the bottom half in all the major statistical rankings. In your estimation, what's been the biggest issue there?
Craig: Injuries, a lack of playmakers in the back seven and the underperformance of second-year corner Josh Robinson, who is the guy who made the Vikings feel comfortable enough to release Antoine Winfield during the offseason. Even at 35, Winfield was the team's best defensive back a year ago when they won 10 games and made the playoffs.
Harrison Smith, a future star at free safety, suffered a turf toe injury and hasn't played since the fifth game. The past two games, the secondary has been without three of its four starters. They'll get two of them -- cornerback Chris Cook and strong safety Jamarca Sanford -- back for this game.
Sanford will help more because that will take backup Mistral Raymond off the field. Raymond's poor angles and missed tackles have caused big headaches. Cook was a 2010 second-round pick, but has underachieved and has missed more games than he's played.
Henderson: Christian Ponder was ineffective when these teams met last season at CenturyLink Field. I remember he had been surviving on shorter passes -- many of them to Percy Harvin -- and throwing downfield wasn't a big part of his game nor the Vikings' offense. I'm curious if that's changed at all this season, especially with a matchup this week against a good secondary and a defense that rarely gives up long passing plays.
Craig: Nothing has changed. Ponder still can't push the ball down the field. Hence, the mid-season signing of Josh Freeman, whose strength is his big arm and his ability to throw deep.
Unfortunately for Freeman and the Vikings, his one and only game -- a 23-7 loss to the Giants on Monday Night Football on Oct. 21 -- was a disaster. The Vikings threw him in after just four practices with the first unit. He responded with a 37.7 completion percentage (20 of 53), suffered a concussion and hasn't been seen on the field since.
Ponder lacks the arm strength, field vision and poise in the pocket to consistently hit the deep ball. When he has perfect protection and he can step up and throw, he can do it. But even then, throws will sail on him. Against the Cowboys, he had Greg Jennings open on a throw that would have been a huge gainer and run out the clock late in the fourth quarter. He missed the throw, the Vikings punted and the Cowboys passed their way down the field for a game-winning touchdown with 35 seconds left.
Henderson: It seems like there's been a one-way pipeline in recent seasons from Minnesota to Seattle. Harvin, Sidney Rice, Tarvaris Jackson, Heath Farwell were all Vikings before becoming Seahawks. One player that went the other direction was tight end John Carlson, who was awfully productive during his time in Seattle. What have you seen from him in his season and a half in Minnesota?
Craig: Yeah, it's been weird. Even Pete Carroll has ties to Winter Park. Maybe the modern-era pipleline started with that Steve Hutchinson poison pill a few years back.
As for Carlson, well, there wasn't much to judge or even talk about before last week. The Vikings were excited to get him before last season. Their five-year, $25 million offer got him to end his visit in Kansas City and head for his home state. The Vikings had visions of an offense similar to New England's when it had Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Kyle Rudolph, like Carlson, is a big pass-catching tight end that can run fast enough to be a mismatch. But Carlson injured a knee on the first day of training camp and ended up missing the preseason. The plan was scrapped. Carlson came back and did some nice things in blocking, but injuries -- including a concussion that cost him last year's return trip to Seattle -- nagged him all year. He finished with just eight catches.
He wasn't a pass-catching threat this year until a fractured foot knocked Rudolph out of the Cowboys game two weeks ago. That's when the Vikings plugged Carlson into Rudolph's "Y" tight end spot. Carlson responded with his best game as a Viking by far: seven catches for 98 yards and a touchdown. He'll stay in that role until Rudolph returns. And considering how comfortable Ponder is rolling out of the pocket and throwing shorter routes to the tight end, look for Carlson to see a lot of action.
Henderson: Alright, Mark, we've gone long enough without mentioning Adrian Peterson, one of the league's best players and the gold standard at running back. In my view, he's the only reason why this game might not turn into the blowout some people expect it to be. The Seahawks have had trouble stopping the run, and I'm not yet convinced those issues are entirely a thing of the past. Containing Peterson would be a good sign that they are. Seahawks 31, Vikings 17.
Craig: Seattle has the far better quarterback, the far better defense and it's at home. It also has weathered enough near upsets in recent weeks to not lose focus against a 12 1/2 -point underdog. Seahawks 35, Vikings 21.