In a difficult season, the finish line looms near with early-season castoffs the Philadelphia Eagles remaining as one of three opponents the Vikings will have to play before limping across the finish line.
Unfortunately, the Eagles of Week 5 are not the Eagles of Week 15. Their quarterback, the unlikely Nick Foles, leads the league in yards per attempt and passer rating, while their running back—LeSean McCoy, a fantasy favorite—leads the league in rushing yards per game and total yards from scrimmage. In addition, he’s the only running back with over 175 carries (he has 261) to average over 5.0 yards an attempt.
On the other side of the ball, the Eagles defense has slowly been improving. In the first six games of the season, they allowed 29.8 points a game (including a 52-point blowout in Denver), 7.2 yards per pass attempt and 4.0 yards per rushing attempt.
In their final seven games, they allowed 17.4 points a game, 6.3 yards per passing attempt and the same 4.0 yards per rushing attempt.
All told, they could statistically be the 5th-best team in the league, when taking into account the most common metrics for efficiency and adjusting for opponent.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Vikings have once again decided to go with their backup quarterback—Matt Cassel—over their starter at the beginning of the season, Christian Ponder. Injury news to their best player, Adrian Peterson, as well as Toby Gerhart, the talented backup, really puts a damper on the options the Vikings have against the Eagles defense heading in to this week.
This cavalcade of injuries extends to the other side of the ball, where their two most talented defensive backs—the young Harrison Smith and rookie Xavier Rhodes—won’t play either, and could prove to be crucial absences against a potent passing game.
The Vikings offense, up to this point, has been performing above expectations and beyond the national perception. There’s a good chance, however, that they may enter the game missing their top two running backs, a big blow to a run-first team that seems to ride the work of their running back more than anyone else.
Naturally, this doesn’t mean abandoning the run, even though the Vikings’ passing game is suspect at best, and their run schemes are sound, even if run blocking has been somewhat more suspect this year than last. Whoever does end up toting the rock will have good stuff to work with, for the most part.
The Vikings will want to keep track of the downhill inside linebackers, both of whom have been much better in the past few games than they had been earlier on. Nevertheless, they won’t be the primary focus of the Eagles run defense, who rely more on their front five than Mychal Kendricks or Demeco Ryans. At the end of the day, Ryans and Kendricks may simply not be good fits for this scheme and often find themselves out of position or making a bad decision.
Running up the middle should be more effective than challenging Brandon Graham or Trent Cole, the outside linebackers, as they have had great years against the run and are hard to take out (in many ways because of the scheme, but also because of their own talent).
Defensive ends Cedric Thornton and Vinny Curry have done well, too and the Eagles might stay in nickel packages to keep them on and Isaac Sopoaga off the field. Thornton is hard to move off his spot and extremely dangerous, so more than anything else, the Vikings may want to target Curry who is clearly the lesser of the two evils in the run game.
But the Vikings will need to rely on passing to win the game if they don’t have Peterson or Gerhart. Getting the ball to playmakers like Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings will be a priority. Jennings should easily win his matchups against Cary Williams, who is not a very good cornerback, but will have a tougher time in the slot against Brandon Boykin or when matched up against Bradley Fletcher—neither of whom are good, but also not shockingly bad like Williams can be.
They’ve all had missteps, however, and Jennings should easily get the best of them for most of the day.
Screen passes to Patterson may seem initially smart—he is, after all, averaging over 9.0 yards a catch on those alone—but hard and quick slants may be better given how likely it is they’ll be up against an efficient slot tackler like Boykin when running screens.
Cassel is a quick thrower and a decisive quarterback, but also likes to take a significant number of risks. That shouldn’t be an issue against a sorry slate of safeties like the ones the Eagles field, but he should still be mindful.
As a thrower who trusts players like Patterson to win one-on-one matchups, the Vikings could be in for an exciting day as a passing offense, but it may just be better to stick to a ball-control philosophy, even against such poor deep passing defense.
Against the passing offense, the Vikings will need to work hard to give Foles problems. Despite a performance against Joe Flacco that was actually remarkable, end-of-game theatrics notwithstanding, Foles will evidently be a concern on a different level.
While playing in man coverage, the Vikings were generally very sound against the Ravens. They rarely tipped open receivers, and it wasn’t until Rhodes’ injury that the passing defense started to break down (where backup cornerback-née-safety Robert Blanton started getting worked over)
The Vikings generally start the game in Cover-2 looks, but have played the majority of their defensive snaps with a single-high safety, whether that means Cover-1 man, Cover-1 Robber or Cover-3.
When pressed, however, they revert back to the Cover-2 looks that seemingly define the scheme to a number of fans. In two-minute drills, the team plays more Cover-2 looks (and Tampa-2 at times) than any other type of coverage, regardless of the team they’re playing.
This will be an issue, as the Vikings this year have been much, much more effective with single-high safety looks than anything else.
The Eagles will attempt to force those basic defensive plays from the Vikings with their hurry-up offense and should be able to exploit the sideline weaknesses the Vikings have shown time and again in that coverage.
Philadelphia will often use the passing game to supplement their effective running, and in this case it means a heavy dose of screen plays to move the players off their spots in the middle of the field and deep shots, often off of play-action, later.
The Eagles collectively had one of the highest average depths of target in the league, and their tendency to favor deep shots plays well to the Vikings’ ability to field Cover-1 and Cover-3 defenses. Foles hasn’t been invincible, and in fact has been incredibly lucky in the past two games because his bad decisionmaking should have cost the team significantly.
The Vikings need to take advantage of that, like they did in some way against the Ravens after producing three interceptions. Foles provides every opportunity to allow them to repeat that performance, but has simply been the beneficiary of dropped interceptions.
Should the Vikings play in their “traditional” Cover-2, they may be more out of place, however, as the type of solid coverage they’ll have for intermediate throws simply won’t match up well with how Philadelphia likes to attack. Further, the corners the Vikings play with now have clear communication issues when handing off receivers and are uncomfortable playing in zone.
If the Vikings stick with a gameplan that has them revert to the questionable coverage concepts they’ve been unable to handle when faced with a hurry-up offense, they’ll suffer against the pass.
There isn’t much to say about the Eagles running game, despite the fact that it’s one of the most effective in the country. At its core, it’s a simple offense that relies on inside zone runs and outside zone stretches, often supplemented by zone-read concepts—an effective play even with less mobile quarterbacks like Nick Foles.
Fundamentally, playing against those zone runs requires gap discipline and balance from the defensive line, patient linebackers and safeties who can help in run defense.
Walking a safety into the box will help resolve the issue of “losing a man” when playing against an option offense and can allow a linebacker like Chad Greenway to “scrape” to cover the defender being read by Foles while still manning the inside gaps.
There’s a lot of coordination involved, but the fact that the run defense strategy meshes well with the Vikings’ ideal coverage concepts should make it easier.
The Eagles will add additional wrinkles like “arc blocking” with pulling guards or fullbacks, which will increase the demands of safeties playing run defense and will highlight the importance of an aggressive cornerback corps willing to set the edge and beat receivers blocking outside.
Football is still a game where players have to beat their man, and no amount of scheming will allow the Vikings to get around that fact.
In addition to beating blocks and keying in on Foles, their primary responsibility to stop LeSean McCoy will require taking him down in space. Not only has that been an extraordinarily tough request for his previous opponents, but the Vikings seem uniquely vulnerable to his style of play.
Shifty running backs who do well in space have burned the Vikings, be it Reggie Bush, Matt Forte or even James Starks. Breaking down McCoy will be even tougher, and the Vikings safety corps has had a recent history of taking extremely poor tackling angles and has been often found wanting in run defense.
They may not be able to keep up defensively with the run game, at which point it may be more productive to maximize the likelihood of generating a turnover. Concentrating on McCoy’s ball-handling and targeting Nick Foles whenever he has the ball in his hands may be more useful for the defense than hoping they can match pace.