After comparing the Eagles‘ offensive line with the Vikings’ dominant defensive line, we will now take a look at each team’s skill positions. If it wasn’t apparent in last Saturday’s game, Doug Pederson pretty much gave up on deep passing plays after the first series. Instead, Pederson utilized a mix of screens and quick hitters to make the game more manageable for Nick Foles.
Quickly getting the ball in the hands of speedy receivers, athletic tight ends and bulldozer backs will continue to be the Birds’ best chance to put up points. However, Minnesota has just the man to stop disrupt those plans in the most underrated defensive player in football, safety Harrison Smith. Smith, along with a sensational linebacking group, rarely miss tackles in the open field. The Eagles skill position players will have to force missed tackles if the offense wants to put up more than 15 points.
Alshon and the Rhodes Forever Closed
In the last minute of the game, on the Saints' final drive, Drew Brees targeted Michael Thomas against Xavier Rhodes three times in a row.
Vikings’ cornerback Xavier Rhodes is one of the rare shutdown cornerbacks who can shadow an opponent’s top receiver all game long. He will no doubt be in charge of locking down Alshon Jeffery on Sunday. Alshon has some history against Rhodes and the Minnesota defense, as he went against the talented cornerback eight times during his time with the Bears from 2013-2016. In those eight games, Jeffery caught six touchdowns. His seven touchdown receptions against Minnesota are the most against any team in his career. Nick Foles might not be throwing any deep bombs to Alshon, but expect the 6-4, 230 pound receiver to get occasional separation on Rhodes, hopefully in some crucial moments.
Vikings Game Breakers
I love this route from Stefon Diggs out of a cut-split alignment. He stems hard outside and is able to get back vertical.
Max protection from the Vikings and Thielen’s deep crossing route from the other side holds the FS long enough to get the ball to Diggs. pic.twitter.com/a8pKKebx5q
— Coach Dan Casey (@CoachDanCasey) January 5, 2018
As the videos above display, man coverage against Vikings receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs is nearly impossible. To make matters worse, both are masters at finding pockets in zone coverage and bursting up field for extra yards. The two combined for over one-third (36.5%) of Minnesota’s total yardage in the regular season, and were vital in their comeback over the Saints.
If that dynamic wide receiving duo isn’t enough to make opposing defenses sweat, add a tight end who caught eight touchdowns this season in Kyle Rudolph and a versatile pass-catching back in Jerick McKinnon. McKinnon possesses a “next level burst” that the Eagles’ linebackers will have to be conscious of when he goes out in pass patterns. With all the weapons surrounding him, Case Keenum has grown comfortable letting his playmakers take over and not turning the ball over. Mychal Kendricks, Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod and the rest of the Philadelphia linebackers and secondary must wrap up to ensure these players don’t crack open a back-breaking catch-and-run.
Running Back Matchups
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer stated the obvious in his press conference Wednesday when he said whichever team can run the ball more effectively will win. Philly’s run defense remains a top unit in the league mainly due to the play of their front four. The Vikings will feature power back Latavius Murray on early downs and add in speedster Jerick “Jet” McKinnon as a change of pace back. McKinnon is a proven weapon out of the backfield and Eagles linebackers will have to keep eyes on him at all times.
It’s been said time and time again, but the Eagles’ key to success is getting their bruising running game going early and often. The Vikings run a similar offense with Case Keenum. Keenum’s success in the offense revolves around an efficient ground game, then mixing in play-action sets from there. Running the ball is going to be very difficult for both sides, as the Vikings are sure to stack the box in an effort to make Nick Foles win the game by himself. But Dougie P has to be persistent and keep pounding the rock with the 245 pound LeGarrette Blount and 216 pound Jay Ajayi. The wear and tear will show later in the game.
Dougie P’s Ultimate Test
Vikings safety Harrison Smith fits the term “rover” safety in every sense of the word. The coaches allow him to roam the field and diagnose each play, meaning he can be anywhere on any given play. Zimmer will load the box against Foles and use Smith as a rogue blitzer or decoy that drops back in coverage. Dealing with a Vikings defense that swarms to the football and rarely misses tackles will be the true test for Doug Pederson and the Eagles’ offense. Look for Dougie P to use Minnesota’s fast flowing coverage against them with some misdirection screens and tosses across the field. Pederson will need to toss a few wrinkles into his game plan in order to move the ball with any success against a disciplined, aggressive defense.
The divisional round may have been Pederson’s best game in terms of play calling. He has to be in consideration for ‘Coach of the Year’ after last week’s playoff victory without his star quarterback. A very underrated part of Pederson’s coaching this year has been his ability to adjust his scheme in-season, and even in-game, to suit new personnel. When Jason Peters went down in Week 7, Pederson changed the offensive scheme to quicker reads so that he could reduce the pressure on an inexperienced left tackle. Sunday will be Dougie P’s ultimate test as he faces the top defense in the NFL without his franchise quarterback and All-Pro left tackle once again.