Will the Minnesota Vikings Be Able to Stop Doug Baldwin on Sunday?
When game planning for the Seattle Seahawks, “how to stop Doug Baldwin” used to be relatively low on the priority list. There’s figuring out how to contain that Russell Wilson fellow, slowing down whoever the Seahawks place at running back -- worse when it’s Marshawn Lynch as it’s expected to be Sunday -- then there’s stopping literally almost every player on the defensive side of the ball. Even in the beginning of the season the threat of Jimmy Graham was a bigger concern for opposing defenses.
But at one point this season Baldwin didn’t just become Seattle’s top receiving threat -- he became one of the most dangerous wide receivers in the league.
As Wilson went on a hot streak that rivaled or bettered some of the best quarterback performances ever, Baldwin became the leading beneficiary and something the Minnesota Vikings will need to contain in the their playoff game on Sunday.
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By our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, there was not a high volume receiver who was more valuable on a per target basis than Baldwin this season. For those new to the metric, NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data. This season, 32 wide receivers saw at least 100 targets, and Baldwin was the only one to be worth over a point of Reception NEP per target.
That tally puts Baldwin in some pretty impressive company. Since 2000 -- as far back as NEP currently goes -- only eight other wide receivers saw at least 100 targets in a season and exceeded 1.00 Reception NEP per target. Those receivers were 2000 Randy Moss, 2009 Sidney Rice, 2009 Vincent Jackson, 2004 Brandon Stokley, 2005 Santana Moss, 2011 Victor Cruz, 2007 Terrell Owens and 2011 Marques Colston. Two tight ends also accomplished that feat, 2011 Rob Gronkowski and 2009 Antonio Gates.
During Seattle’s recent run as one of the league’s best teams over the past few seasons, Baldwin has been the team’s top receiver. Though that moniker has meant many different things depending on the season. In four of the past five seasons, Baldwin has led the Seahawks in targets with 2012 being the lone exception behind Golden Tate. He even predates Wilson on the roster, seeing 85 targets from Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst.
Baldwin has been somewhat close to this type of receiver before. In 2013 he was fourth among receivers to see at least 40 targets with a Reception NEP 0.95 on 73 targets. However, when his usage increased last season to 98 targets, his per play production dropped drastically for a Reception NEP per target of 0.69.
But this year, Baldwin’s two styles came together -- high efficiency and high usage.
Touchdowns were a huge help in boosting Baldwin’s NEP this season. He tied for the league lead at 14 along with Brandon Marshall and Allen Robinson. The amazing thing with that production is 12 of those touchdowns have come since Week 10. Two of those touchdowns came Week 13 against the Vikings, in a game that mirrored Baldwin’s full season statistics. He caught 5 passes on 7 targets for 94 yards and the 2 touchdowns. The two non-completions were throwaways where Baldwin was the closest receiver in the area.
The performance was enough for a team high 9.08 Reception NEP and 1.82 Reception NEP per target. It was also just Baldwin’s third best game of the season by NEP behind the Week 12 game against Pittsburgh (15.46 Reception NEP and 1.93 Reception NEP per target) and Week 6 against St. Louis (12.51 Reception NEP and 1.25 Reception NEP per target).
Against Minnesota, Baldwin started with simple receptions of seven, six and eight yards before two touchdowns of 20 and 53 yards. Those explosive plays may be what the Vikings have to worry about against the Seahawks on Sunday.
Baldwin’s first touchdown came when he became the most inside receiver in a trips set on the left after motion sent the third receiver to the outside. Minnesota sat in zone and there was clear miscommunication all over. The two linebackers in the middle of the field sit in the same zone, the deep safety -- Antone Exum -- reacts to Baldwin too late and Terence Newman, the corner on the opposite side becomes the closest defender on the post route that perfectly found the hole in the coverage. (Videos from NFL Game Pass.)
The 53-yarder in the third quarter is more of what the Seahawks have done so well in the second half of the season, which made them one of the most dangerous offenses in the league. They finished as the third best passing offense in the league by Adjusted NEP per play behind Arizona and Cincinnati.
On this play, Baldwin again starts in the slot in a trips set, this time to the right side of the formation. The Vikings bring a Cover-0 look to bring pressure on Wilson, but one move from Baldwin, again on Exum, in the middle of the field gets him behind the defense with no deep defenders to cut him off.
Minnesota’s attempt to bring pressure nearly works, as linebacker Eric Kendricks easily blows by guard J.R. Sweezy on the play. He gets to Wilson just as the quarterback is about to throw the pass, but Wilson stands strong in the pocket and recognizes Baldwin with a clear path to the end zone.
After a shaky start to the season, and despite these two coverage lapses, the Vikings had one of the better secondaries in the league this season, ranked 11th against the pass by Adjusted NEP per play. The Vikings’ pass coverage was helped by Xavier Rhodes starting to play like the star he was expected to be after a disappointing first half of the season. But by keeping Baldwin in the slot -- where these two touchdowns started -- the Seahawks can keep the receiver away from Rhodes.
This of course is just one singular matchup for a game that features many play makers and even this matchup will be different than the first. Exum is on injured reserve and will not play, but the Vikings will have Harrison Smith back at safety, who was knocked out early in Week 13 by an injury.
Baldwin, though, has been a big reason for Seattle’s second half dominance as the offense and should again be a big factor in the rematch.