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The Eagles are going to face a tough matchup on Sunday afternoon when a well-rested and battle-tested Minnesota Vikings team comes to town with revenge on its mind. Minnesota is smarting after a rough loss in prime time against the Los Angeles Rams last Thursday night, but don’t be fooled by this team's record. They are very similar to the team the Eagles faced in the NFC Championship Game in January. In some ways, the Vikings are better. Let’s start on defense.
Mike Zimmer’s defense is a pressure-based scheme. They play man coverage with a good mix of zone, particularly in their various blitz schemes. When it comes to the Vikings' blitz schemes, it has to start with a staple of their playbook, the Double A-Gap look.
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Amy Campbell and I took a deep dive into these pressure looks this week, and for good reason. When the defense lines up this way, as it typically does on third down, the offense has to protect a certain way. Zimmer makes offenses become predictable in its protection schemes, and then he knows exactly where to attack.
Zimmer doesn’t just utilize these Double A-Gap blitzes. He mixes in an extensive amount of zone pressures as well. Similar to what the Eagles saw last week in Tennessee, Zimmer will show the offense one thing before the snap, force a change in protection and slide it to one side, only to bring pressure from the opposite way. These are some great examples of the Vikings getting after the quarterback to force sacks and turnovers.
When the Vikings don’t blitz, they’re able to disrupt up front with just four because of their personnel. Even with Pro Bowl defensive end Everson Griffen out of the lineup, this is an intimidating defensive line. Danielle Hunter has come into his own as one of the best young edge players in the league, and Linval Joseph is joined by Sheldon Richardson to form one of the best defensive tackle tandems in the entire NFL.
At linebacker, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr form one of the most impressive duos in the league. The Vikings are in nickel for a large majority of their snaps, and these two give Zimmer the ability to line up and win against a number of different offensive packages. These two were hurt big-time with play-action fakes in the passing game last week against the Rams, but this was more of an aberration than the norm. Kendricks, in particular, is very good at attacking the line of scrimmage before dropping back into coverage and disrupting passing lanes.
You can see here on these plays how good Kendricks is at disrupting the timing of passing plays and forcing the quarterback to eat throws.
In the secondary, the Vikings have one of the best corners in the league in Xavier Rhodes. I expect him to shadow Alshon Jeffery whenever they play man coverage. The starter on the opposite end is Trae Waynes, a former first-round pick who has been in and out of the lineup with injuries. The team drafted Mike Hughes in the first round this year, and he can line up both inside and outside. I expect him to be a starter sooner rather than later. Mackensie Alexander, a former second-round pick, is the starting nickel at this point.
The safeties are a big part of what make Zimmer’s scheme go. The starters are Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo, and while Smith is primarily the strong safety and Sendejo the free safety, both are interchangeable players who offer versatile skill sets and do a little bit of everything for that defense. This is a tough defense to match up with and prepare for, and they’ll present Doug Pederson, Carson Wentz, and the Eagles' offense with a big test on Sunday.
Offensively, the Vikings are coached by former Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo. There are a lot of Eagles concepts in the offense, plays that we saw when DeFilippo was here in Philadelphia, but it’s absolutely a scheme built in his own image. The Vikings like to attack downfield and, with newly signed quarterback Kirk Cousins at the helm, Minnesota is much more dangerous on offense than it was eight months ago.
Cousins has the third best quarterback rating in the league in the red zone, and DeFilippo is a big reason for that. He constructs concepts that are friendly for the quarterback in all areas of the field, but especially close to the end zone. His presence, paired with Cousins’ use of his eyes and touch as a passer, make the Vikings tough to handle inside the 20-yard line. This offense isn’t just going to sit back and wait until they reach the red zone to take their shots though, because they’re one of the best downfield passing teams in the NFL right now. Once they cross midfield, they’re a threat to score anytime he drops back.
These are three well-defined concepts attacking a certain coverage. Pre-snap motion gives the quarterback answers before the snap. There's also good execution from a veteran quarterback understanding what he has and when to get rid of the football. That was always a bit of a knock on Cousins in Washington, but that’s not a problem with him here with DeFilippo now. It also helps that he has a pair of standout receivers in Minnesota, something he didn’t have in Washington last year.
Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs give the Vikings a pair of impressive pass catchers who do a little bit of everything. Both of them line up inside and outside. Both create their own separation as route runners. Both can win at the catch point. Both are great with the ball in their hands. This is a tough duo to match up with and the Eagles' corners will see a little bit of both of these guys because of how they line up them across the formation on any given play.
One final pass catcher to be aware of is Dalvin Cook. The Vikings run the ball less than anyone in the league (the polar opposite of the team the Eagles faced a week ago), but that doesn’t mean they want to keep the ball out of Cook’s hands. I know the targets haven’t looked like it the past two weeks, but I think that’s more to do with his hamstring injury than their willingness to throw him the football. DeFilippo wants to use his best matchup players, and Cook provides him with one out of the backfield. Through the first two weeks, the Vikings designed plays to get Cook catches on the first or second snaps of multiple possessions, showing us the importance that they place on it. I would be surprised if he didn’t get a handful of targets on Sunday afternoon – he has not yet practiced this week, however – in the passing game. He’s an explosive weapon for that offense.
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts, Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the Journey to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. 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.