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Eagle Eye: Adam Thielen Is One Of The Best Receivers In The NFL

Posted Jan 20, 2018

On Thursday, I dove into the film to break down the challenges facing the Eagles' offense against Minnesota’s disruptive defense on Sunday night, but let’s turn the tables and look at the other side of the ball.

Offensively, the Vikings have a group that has been nothing if not efficient this season. They’re great on third down (43.5 percent conversion rate ranks third in the NFL) and in the red zone (93.0 percent efficiency ranks fourth). They very rarely go three-and-out and can throw the ball to all three levels of the field. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who coached twice here in Philadelphia, has helped orchestrate a very productive group, and he’s done it with backup quarterback Case Keenum at the helm for the large majority of the season.

Note that there is audio commentary for each of the video clips.

What has stood out to me about Keenum while watching him this season is his ability to make tough throws under pressure. Whether he’s avoiding free rushers in the pocket or just "staring down the gun barrel" and making a throw with a defender bearing down on him, I was impressed by his pocket awareness and ability to find room for himself to complete passes. Keenum isn’t a big, strong pocket passer, but his mobility allows him to work from confined spaces and move the chains while under duress.

The other aspect of his game, and something that has always been prevalent with him, is his ability to create plays outside of structure. When he’s given time to throw, Keenum is able to pick you apart because he is able to buy himself even more time for his receivers to uncover. His accuracy on the run is also very impressive.

What does this mean for the Eagles?

They have to get pressure on the veteran quarterback. Will they do it via the blitz, however? Keenum completed 63.5 percent of his passes against extra pressure this year, throwing for 12 touchdowns and three picks with four sacks and a quarterback rating of 104.0. He’s been able to have success against the blitz, but it doesn’t mean the Eagles won’t try it. Last year, they engulfed Sam Bradford in this matchup with a variety of zone pressures. I’m anxious to see what Jim Schwartz has in store for Keenum on Sunday night.

On the outside, Keenum has a number of targets at his disposal. Kyle Rudolph is a rock-solid tight end who has great hands and can line up in a number of different spots and win. He has the ability to be a real factor in this game. At receiver, the players to watch are last week’s hero, Stefon Diggs, along with one of the most productive players over the last two seasons in the entire league in Adam Thielen.

Before last season, Thielen was a relative unknown despite the fact that he’s been on the Vikings since 2013. Coming out of Minnesota State, Thielen was undrafted and only got noticed thanks to his performance at a Regional Combine in Chicago that spring. That got him a tryout with his hometown Vikings, who signed him to a contract after the tryout. He spent his first season on the practice squad, caught eight passes in 2014, 12 in 2015, and then busted out in his fourth season last year. Now? Thielen is one of the best receivers in the NFL. It’s not because of his size or his athleticism or his leaping ability or top-end speed, but it’s because of how nuanced of a football player he is.

Whether it’s getting off the line against press coverage, creating separation mid-route, or tracking the ball mid-flight, Thielen is a great receiver. He may not be Julio Jones from a physical standpoint, but I think he’s a similar type of challenge for the Eagles' defense as the focal point of the passing game for the Vikings. Whoever lines up against him on any given play will have to be at the top of his game.

Stefon Diggs has also developed into a really productive option for them both inside and outside. Yeah, he’s getting all of the headlines after his game-winning miracle play last week, but Diggs can win in a lot of different ways and, like Thielen, is an impressive route runner. The Eagles' corners will be put in the spotlight against these two Minnesota receivers.

Let’s wrap up this preview of the Vikings' offense by studying some of the concepts I think the Eagles will see on Sunday night.

In the quick game, I can guarantee the Eagles will see a lot of Minnesota’s Mesh concept. Shurmur was the offensive coordinator for Chip Kelly here in Philadelphia, and during that time the Mesh was a staple of the Eagles' passing game. He’s taken that concept with him to Minnesota and made it a huge part of what the Vikings do. Whether the ball is going to one of the shallow crossers or to the running back out of the backfield, the Eagles' defense can expect to see this route combination, especially on third down when the Vikings are expecting man-to-man coverage.

The Vikings rank 23rd in the NFL in yards per carry (3.91), but they have a run-pass ratio of 52.5 to 47.5 in favor of the run, a number that ranks fifth in the league. On first-and-10, they run the ball 61 percent of the time! That number leads the entire NFL. They will certainly try to stay committed to the run game. The Eagles' run defense has been stout on the ground all year long, and it will be important for that to continue on Sunday to make the Vikings one-dimensional.

With how committed the Vikings are to running the ball, their play-action pass game is very dangerous. A lot of their big plays in the passing game have come off play-action, and one of the big benefits is that it gets Keenum, who is shorter than your average NFL quarterback, farther away from the line of scrimmage. By getting away from the much taller offensive and defensive linemen in the trenches, Keenum has more of a vantage point to see over and through the rush to find receivers and pick up a first down.

The Vikings are also one of the best screen teams in the NFL. Every team on the Eagles' schedule this year has tried to beat them with the screen game. For that reason, you can expect to see screens, to both receivers and running backs, on Sunday night. The Eagles will need to get off blocks at the second and third levels, while defensive linemen make plays in pursuit to fight back and get to the football.

Sunday will likely be a low-scoring game, so the defensive performance against this Minnesota offense will be incredibly important. If the defense can put forth a similar effort that it did against the Falcons, it will go a long way toward a victory.

Fran Duffy is the producer of “Eagles Game Plan” which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices and opponents.

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