The oddsmakers were wrong last week. The Eagles were 2-1/2-point underdogs, and they beat the Falcons by five. But this week, the 3-point spread in favor of the Vikings seemingly makes more sense on paper. Minnesota, after all, won as many games as the Eagles and has won 12 of its last 13.
The Eagles, of course, can win. But to reach the Super Bowl, they will need to fend off the No. 1 defense in the NFL. Here’s a closer look at what Doug Pederson’s offense can expect from Mike Zimmer’s aggressive 4-3 defense and one significant matchup in its favor:
THE VIKINGS DEFENSE
A Zimmer defense creates pressure. It does so either with exotic blitz packages or pre-snap looks that disguise where the rush is coming from. His coverage schemes are aggressive and are designed to take away the easy pass. Zimmer’s defenders might look like the Keystone Cops pre-snap, but when the play is run, they’re almost always in the right spots and almost always play sound football.
Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich: I think they are the best defense we’ve faced this year, and I think one of the reasons why is they can get pressure with four and cover with seven. Any time you can get pressure with four and cover with seven … that’s a winning formula.
Swarming run defense
The Vikings, first and foremost, have great personnel. In terms of stopping the run, they have a front led by defensive end Everson Griffen and defensive tackle Linval Joseph, two athletic, fast-flow linebackers in Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr, and jack-of-all trades safety Harrison Smith.
Pederson: They just basically say, “Hey, line up and try to come after us, try to beat us.”
Last week, they held the Saints’ potent running back duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara to 68 yards on 22 carries (3.1 average). The Vikings are disciplined, and they swarm to the ball.
The Eagles have one of the best run schemes in the league, but they will have their hands full — particularly, center Jason Kelce, who struggled against Joseph when he was with the Giants.
The Vikings run a little more zone than man-to-man, according to Reich. But they mix up their coverages and employ man tactics in say, quarters, and give zone looks when actually in man. The late movements just before the snap add an additional layer of confusion. If the field was a chessboard, Smith would be Zimmer’s queen.
On this play against the Bengals, Smith runs all the way up to the line, but by the time the ball is snapped, he’s deep in centerfield.
Smith and fellow safety Andrew Sendejo, who is a question mark for the game because of a concussion, are interchangeable safeties.
Eagles tight end Zach Ertz: They do a good job of going back and forth. I think that’s what makes their defense extremely difficult to game-plan against. You don’t really know who’s going to be playing what. They don’t give much away.
Zimmer had seven in the box on this play, but he dropped Smith and his linebackers, and blitzed from the slot.
When there are extra rushers, there are opportunities downfield, but Zimmer is willing to gamble that his rush, particularly on third and long, will be get home before receivers get out of their breaks.
Eagles quarterback Nick Foles: They do a good job of rocking and rolling the safeties, and they play a lot tighter down. They are not going to give us as much underneath, so we are absolutely going to have make some larger completions.
Containing Everson Griffin
Griffen led the Vikings with 13 sacks, but as Pederson noted, “he’s a game wrecker.” He has elite pass rush moves both inside and out. On this play, he turned the corner on the Saints tackle and had a sack/forced fumble on Drew Brees.
Halapoulivaati Vaitai has held up since replacing Jason Peters at left tackle, but this might be his toughest challenge yet.
Pederson: [Vaitai] knows that tight ends are going to help over there, backs are going to help over there, slide protection. It’s not rocket science.
Double A-gap looks
Zimmer’s double A-gap looks were his calling card for years.
Zimmer: Everybody in the world copies it now, so everybody gets to practice against it. It’s just the way it is. Sometimes we try to stay ahead of the curve a little bit. Everybody’s trying to do what we do, so we do something else.
He still employs the tactic – which has two linebackers on the line over the “A” gaps — but not as much this season. Foles, Kelce and the Eagles offense are still likely to see it in some form. It creates havoc for offensive lines because of all the variables Zimmer can call.
Pederson: He’s run it in a lot of places he’s been, and it’s hard in the aspect of sometimes you don’t know where everybody is coming from. He’ll present a normal, six-man box with it; he’ll present a seven-man; he’ll present an eight-man; and you just have to try to sort it all out.
Sometimes both linebackers drop, as they did here last year against Carson Wentz.
Sometimes they both come up the “A” gaps.
Sometimes they both blitz, but they’ll run stunts and overload one side.
There are more variables. Zimmer could send just one linebacker. He could line up Smith or Sendejo on the edges, have seven on the line, as Pederson mentioned, and send or drop. He could zone blitz and drop the linemen. The possibilities are seemingly endless. The Eagles’ running backs, who have been inconsistent in pass pro, will have to be on their toes.
Kelce: You’re not going to be right on all the blitz pickups. It’s impossible to be, especially with a team disguising it this well. So you have to have answers.
As Zimmer alluded to, while many have zigged by copying his double A-gap looks, he has zagged this season and called more overloads. However he’s gone about creating pressure, it’s all about the math. Can the Vikings send more than they block on one side, while not losing the numbers game in coverage?
Smith, who sacked Brees from the B-gap on the above play, is Zimmer’s Brian Dawkins.
Pederson: They like to sort of allow him to anticipate the play, anticipate what he might be seeing, what might be coming. And he’ll trigger it at any time whether it’s in a B-gap, whether it’s off the edge.
Xavier Rhodes vs. Alshon Jeffery
The Vikings have one of the best third-down defenses in NFL history. Opponents converted only 25 percent of third downs during the regular season. Rhodes is one big reason that Minnesota gets off the field. He hardly receives safety help, can line up anywhere, and is excellent in press man coverage.
In last season’s meeting, Rhodes was targeted by Wentz five times and allowed just two catches for 18 yards. He had an interception. But the Eagles didn’t have receiver Alshon Jeffery. Rhodes could follow him on Sunday.
Pederson: I’ve gone back and looked at that matchup in particular just to see the battle that went on and the types of things that Alshon did against him, and the coverage technique that he used. Does it apply to this game? Maybe a little bit.
While Jeffery has very good career numbers against the Vikings (45 catches for 685 yards and seven touchdowns), most of his production came against cornerbacks other than Rhodes. Only one of his seven touchdowns came against the 6-foot-1, 218-pound corner, per phillyvoice.com.
Jeffery: He’s competitive. He’s strong, physical, long arms.
Nelson Agholor vs. Mackensie Alexander
The Eagles’ greatest advantage could be in the slot. Alexander and 39-year-old Terence Newman have split time inside, but with Agholor’s speed, the Vikings might ride the former. In the divisional playoffs, Brees attacked both, completing 8 of 11 targets for 91 yards and a touchdown.
Here’s Alexander getting beaten by Michael Thomas for 20 yards.
And Brees going at him on a crucial fourth down late in the game.
If the Eagles are to advance, they will likely need to take advantage of some of the soft spots in Zimmer’s scheme and exploit the Agholor-slot mismatch. In last year’s meeting, the receiver caught just 2 of 6 targets for 10 yards and had a drop.
Zimmer: He’s been great with the run after catch. He’s catching the ball well. I think his routes look a lot better. He’s just a guy that’s probably grown up.