One of the top priorities of the Eagles’ defense this season has been to not give up the big play. Their secondary plays “deep to short,’’ which means they play a little deeper to make it more difficult to throw over them, and then try to limit yards after the catch on plays in front of them.
That strategy had worked pretty well the last 2 ½ months. Since their rocky four-game September start, the Eagles had given up just 10 pass completions of 30 yards or more, which was a big reason they held nine straight opponents to 21 points or less and won seven of those games.
But they reverted back to early-season form in their loss to the Vikings, giving up a season-high four pass plays of 30 yards or more, including the 57-yarder to Greg Jennings in the first quarter that started the scoring avalanche.
There’s plenty of blame for Matt Cassel’s 26-for-35, 382-yard, two-touchdown performance to go around. The corners, safeties and linebackers all struggled in coverage. And while the Eagles managed to sack Cassel three times, the pass rush was inconsistent. When Cassel is able to get comfortable in the pocket and step into his throws, he’s a pretty good quarterback. On Sunday, he was a very good one.
The Eagles blitzed, but their blitzes weren’t very effective. Cassel completed 11 of 14 passes for 264 yards when they sent extra rushers. One of the few times it was effective was late in the third quarter when linebacker DeMeco Ryans came clean up the middle on a second-and-10 blitz and decked Cassel for a seven-yard loss. But there were too few moments like that.
The Vikings’ receivers won the coverage battles most of the day. Ryans and safety Patrick Chung let Jennings get behind them on his long TD. Cornerback Bradley Fletcher, who had probably his poorest game of the season, got beat by Jarius Wright on a 42-yard pass down the right sideline that set up a Minnesota score.
Linebacker Mychal Kendricks got beat by former Eagles practice-squad tight end Chase Ford for a 37-yard completion on a third-and-14 early in the fourth quarter that set up another Vikings touchdown.
The Eagles have been on the field for 1,023 snaps this season. That’s a league-high 73.1 per game. A lot of that has to do with the nature of their up-tempo offense, which, despite all of the yards it’s gaining and points it’s scoring, is last in the league in time of possession and 12th in plays per game. But the defense’s difficulty getting off the field on third down has exacerbated the problem.
The Eagles are 26th in the league in third-down defense. Eagles opponents have converted 41.3 percent of their third-down opportunities. On Sunday, the Vikings, who entered the game ranked just 17th in third-down offense, converted eight of 13 third-down tries against the Eagles, and like too many of their opponents, they converted several third-and-longs, including Ford’s 37-yard catch on third-and-14.
On the Vikings’ final touchdown drive, Cassel completed an 11-yard sideline pass to Patterson in front of a soft-playing Fletcher on a third-and-10. Backup cornerback Roc Carmichael also drew a 30-yard pass-interference penalty on a third-and-10.
In the last three games, opponents have converted a disturbing 8 of 20 third-down situations of 7 yards or more against the Eagles.
THIS AND THAT
--The Eagles’ decision to go with short kickoffs Sunday kept the league’s top kickoff return man, Cordarrelle Patterson, from taking one back for a touchdown. But at what cost? The strategy also gave the Vikings consistently good field position. Their average starting field position Sunday was their own 39 yard-line. The only team that’s had better starting field position against the Eagles this year was the Chiefs (their own 43). The Eagles’ season-high five turnovers in that game had a little something to do with that.
The average starting field position of the Eagles’ 14 opponents this season:
Team Pos. Result
MIN M39 L
DET D35 W
ARI A19 W
WAS W20 W
GB G25 W
OAK O21 W
NYG N31 L
DAL D30 L
TB T26 W
NYG N22 W
DEN D23 L
KC K43 L
SD S25 L
WAS W20 W
--One of the reasons the Eagles signed cornerback Cary Williams was to provide some veteran leadership. But he didn’t act like much of a leader Sunday, picking up a stupid unsportsmanlike conduct penalty late in the game when he wouldn’t stop jawing with Vikings wide receiver Joe Webb. Then, a play later, he got beat by Cordarrelle Patterson for a five-yard touchdown pass. I like players with attitude. But Williams needs to learn how to manage that attitude.
--The Eagles’ screen game continues to be very effective. Nick Foles threw five screens Sunday, three to LeSean McCoy, one to Brent Celek and one to Riley Cooper. The three screens to McCoy went for 24, 22 and 11 yards. The memorable screen to Celek came late in the third quarter, with Celek gaining 25 yards on the play and drilling Vikings safety Harrison Smith with his shoulder at the end of the play. The screen to Cooper came on the Eagles’ first offensive play and lost a yard.
--One of the major momentum-swinging moments in Sunday’s game was Nick Foles’ penalty for an illegal peel-back block in the middle of the second quarter. It negated an 18-yard touchdown run on a double-reverse by DeSean Jackson that would’ve tied the game at 10 and forced the Eagles to settle for a field goal. Right after that, the Vikings put together a marathon 16-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that ate up nearly eight minutes off the clock and put the Vikings ahead 17-6.
--Defensive end Cedric Thornton continues to impress. He made an outstanding play in the third quarter, getting backfield penetration by pushing back center John Sullivan and nailing Matt Asiata for a four-yard loss.
--It’s time for Chip Kelly and special teams coordinator Dave Fipp to make Brad Smith the full-time kickoff returner. As he proved again Sunday with a 47-yard return after Brandon Boykin got hurt, he’s got a much better feel for returning kickoffs than Boykin does. Plus, at 6-2 and 213 pounds, he’s more physically suited for the job than the 5-10, 185-pound Boykin.
BY THE NUMBERS
--The Vikings were the first team to score four rushing touchdowns against the Eagles since the Colts did it on November 26, 2006.
--The Eagles had a season-low 13 rushing attempts against the Vikings, and five of those were by Nick Foles. The Eagles’ fewest previous rushing attempts this season were 19 in their Week 8 loss to the Giants. Ironically, the Eagles went into Sunday’s game with the third highest run percentage in the league, behind only the 49ers and the Seahawks. Because the Eagles threw so much (48 times) and ran so little, Brent Celek, who is their primary run-blocking tight end, played a season-low 33 snaps, while rookie tight end Zach Ertz played a season-high 46. Ertz was targeted a season-high nine times and had a season-high six catches, including a touchdown.
--The Eagles, who had held opponents to just four touchdowns in their previous 14 red-zone challenges, gave up five in six tries Sunday. Cassel completed five of nine passes in the red zone, one for a touchdown.
--The Eagles lead the league in offensive plays of 20 yards or more with 88. They had eight against the Vikings, all pass plays.
--The Vikings’ 48 points were their most in a game since 1998, when they put up 50 against Jacksonville.
--Before LeSean McCoy got stoned on those back-to-back third-and-one and fourth-and-one plays in the third quarter, he had converted 27 of 36 situations of two yards or less into first downs or touchdowns.
--McCoy is averaging a career-high 11.3 yards per catch. The only running back in the league with at least 10 receptions who has a better yards-per-catch average is the Lions’ Joique Bell (11.5).
--The delay of game penalty against the Eagles in the fourth quarter was not their first this season. It was the third. They also got flagged for delays in Week 1 against the Redskins and Week 4 against the Broncos. Surprisingly, the Eagles only had one delay of game penalty last season, but six in both 2011 and 2010.
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