PHILADELPHIA — The Eagles are preparing for the Minnesota Vikings’ top-ranked defense, although their own fourth-ranked unit doesn’t often take a back seat. The Eagles have allowed 26 total points during the last three games and opponents have averaged only 13 points per game at Lincoln Financial Field this season.
Las Vegas has set the over-under at 38 points. If you want offensive fireworks, look elsewhere on Sunday. This game has a better chance of becoming a defensive duel. Regardless of the season-long statistics, the better defense on Sunday might be headed to the Super Bowl.
“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,” Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. ” … That’s kind of been the key to our defensive success. That’s a winning formula. That’s been a proven winning formula for a long time, so I think this week is a good test of that. From the flip side of that offensively, we have a challenge in front of us to be able to put together drives, find some big plays in those drives, and be smart with the football.”
During the regular season, the Vikings kept opponents to 275.9 yards per game, 15.8 points, and 25.2 percent on third downs. They topped the NFL in all those categories, with the best third-down defense since the NFL started keeping track in 1991.
They have talent at all levels. Defensive ends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter combined for 20 sacks and Griffen, whom Eagles coach Doug Pederson called a “game-wrecker,” is a challenge for tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Defensive tackle Linval Joseph is a former Pro Bowler who is a physical force in the middle.
At linebacker, Anthony Barr is a three-time Pro Bowler and Eric Kendricks, the brother of Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks, leads the team in tackles. In the secondary, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Harrison Smith were both named first-team all-pros.
Coach Mike Zimmer was a respected coordinator before becoming a head coach and his defenses have improved every year since he took the job. He’s known for the “double-A gap blitz,” which includes linebackers lining up tight between the center and the guards and threatening to blitz.
The Eagles relied on lengthy drives last week. Their four scoring drives averaged 11.25 plays, including two scoring drives of 14 plays. Quarterback Nick Foles seldom looked deep, and the Eagles relied on third-down conversions. Good luck trying to extend drives against the Vikings.
“That’s the challenge against going up against one of the better defenses in the league,” Reich said. “And so I think one thing is we have to scheme, and our players, we all together, have to ways to make a few chunk plays here and there.”
The good news for the Eagles offense is their defense doesn’t require them to light up the scoreboard. It took only one touchdown and 15 points to win in the divisional round. The defense has allowed only three touchdowns during the last three games, and the touchdown last week came on a short field. Fletcher Cox dominated the line of scrimmage against the Falcons, and defensive Brandon Graham excelled next to them. Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks were both active in the second level, and the Eagles’ secondary played among its finest games of the year.
The Vikings had the NFL’s 11th-ranked offense with 356.9 yards per game and they ranked 10th in scoring with 23.9 points per game. Case Keenum filled in for Sam Bradford for almost the entire season and excelled in that role, and he benefited from one of the NFL’s best receiving duos in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Kyle Rudolph is one of the better tight ends in the NFL, and the Vikings remain committed to running the ball even after losing Dalvin Cook for the season.
“All those guys have a role, and the quarterback is a smart, veteran player that knows where to go with the ball and hasn’t made a lot of mistakes,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said.
Keenum performed well when pressured this season with one of the NFL’s best passer rating against the blitz, although he struggled when pressured in the divisional round against the Saints on Sunday with a quarterback rating of 5.1 when the pocket wasn’t clean. The Eagles don’t blitz often — Schwartz categorized the Eagles as “surgical” with their blitzes, noting they’re effective when they do — and they usually rely on their defensive line for their pass rush.
It was different circumstances when the Eagles and Vikings played last season because Bradford was the quarterback and the Vikings had a depleted offensive line, but Schwartz blitzed more than usual and the Eagles defense pummeled the then-undefeated Vikings. Bradford was sacked six times and hit 13 times. However it comes — whether by blitz or by the four-man rush — the pressure will be the key against the Vikings.
There’s reason for Eagles fans to be encouraged. Ever since the defense allowed 29 points to the New York Giants in Week 15, defenders have made the end zone nearly impenetrable. In their last 14 quarters, they’ve allowed only four touchdowns. It appears they’re peaking at just the right time.
“We will see on Sunday,” Schwartz said.