You may feel that the Eagles didn't play well enough to go on the road and get a win against Minnesota. Two stats would support your argument: Four turnovers (if you include the turnover on downs) to Minnesota's two, and seven penalties to Minnesota's four. It's tough to turn the ball over and shoot yourself in the foot when you go into a hostile environment, especially against a good defense like that one.
But bear with me here for a second, though, and I can help show you how the Eagles nearly won the game DESPITE plummeting into an early 24-3 deficit. The Eagles very nearly came back in this game and, if not for some costly mistakes on both sides of the ball, very easily could have stolen this game back from Minnesota in the second half.
Before we get to that part though, let's rip off the Band-Aid and talk about why the Eagles lost this game. I thought there were two themes that stood out most to me. Defensively, the big plays allowed in the first half were killers and are pills that are tough to swallow. Offensively, the inability to stay out of third-and-long against this defense hurt them in key spots. But let's start with the defense.
ALL OF THE VIDEO CLIPS FEATURE AUDIO ANALYSIS FROM FRAN DUFFY
These are the two big plays that crushed the Eagles in the first quarter, putting them into that three-score hole. They occurred on consecutive plays from scrimmage for the unit, and both plays came on first-and-10 shot plays from the Vikings off play-action. Minnesota had to work for its opening drive touchdown, marching 70 yards in 13 plays while taking a bunch of time off the clock to start the game. As a defense, if you're going to give up points, you want to make them earn it. You obviously don't want to give up ANY points, but if that's how they score, that's how they score. These kinds of plays are the tough ones to live with.
On the first play, you have to tip your cap to the other team. Why? Because they called a good play against the defense. Simple as that. Stay with me here on a quick overview.
Let me set this up by saying the Eagles have not been a HUGE Quarters (otherwise known as Cover 4) team this year. Do they play it at times? Of course, but I wouldn't say it's been one of their staple coverages entering the game. Like every type of zone coverage, Quarters has its strengths and weaknesses. Here they are in a nutshell:
1. Safeties who are present in run support
Against a run-heavy team like the Vikings that likes to utilize base personnel packages (meaning the use of a fullback and multiple tight ends), the safeties need to be active in the run fit. The Eagles are a "one-gap" defense, meaning that each of your front seven players is going to be responsible for fitting into one gap. Well, when the offense adds players into that equation (like a fullback), that means there are more gaps that have to be accounted for by the defense. That means you're either going to ask your defensive linemen to account for those extra gaps, or you're going to have your safeties come down and be a bigger part of the run game.
2. Theoretical four-deep coverage across the board
While those safeties are assigned gaps in the run game, they also are given responsibilities on the back end of the defense, as they join the two outside cornerbacks to split the secondary into "quarters" across the width of the field. These aren't extremely wide areas of grass to cover, but it gives each defensive back "help" if he is attacked vertically down the field, as long as their "help" is not being occupied elsewhere.
3. 'Tight' zone coverage
Quarters coverage is typically a "pattern match" zone, meaning that, after a certain depth downfield, the coverage for the defensive back turns into what is basically man coverage, typically at about 8-10 yards. It can differ from coach to coach.
1. Stressful for safeties
Quarters coverage can be stressful for safeties. They are responsible for being players inside the run fit. They are responsible for areas in the deep middle. AND if they have a slot receiver across from them pre-snap, they have potential a man coverage assignment as well. Now, they are obviously not going to have all three on any one play, but the threat of all three is present on nearly every snap. There is a lot of reading and keying and diagnosing and communicating involved in playing the coverage.
2. Blurring of responsibilities
Every team plays every form of zone coverage a little bit differently, and that can change from week-to-week depending on the opponent, the personnel, the situation, injuries, etc. There are literally dozens of potential checks and changes a secondary could make based off one pre-snap motion or change in the alignment of a receiver before the snap. If you're a team that passes off receivers in the secondary, it can also get a bit dicey if all of your T's and I's aren't crossed and dotted.
3. Quick out-breaking routes
Again, every zone coverage has weaknesses. In Cover 2, you have two deep safeties with five defenders underneath. In Cover 3, you have three deep defenders with four players underneath. Simple math tells you then that, in Cover 4, you have four deep defenders with just three defenders underneath and those three defenders have a lot of ground to cover. Since they typically are linebackers and slot defenders, they typically have to work from the hash marks out toward the sideline, so the quick game can be effective against these looks.
Before that first Diggs touchdown, the 62-yard throw on the deep post, the Vikings threw the ball 11 times. On three of those first four pass plays, the Eagles came out in Cover 4, all on the opening drive. Credit for Minnesota now for coming back and racking up some of their "Cover 4 Beaters" in this game to try and attack the coverage.
Going back to that first Diggs touchdown in the clip above, before the snap you can see Sidney Jones is lined up across from tight end Kyle Rudolph at the top of the screen. Malcolm Jenkins is lined up across Adam Thielen in the slot to the right. Rasul Douglas is lined across from Diggs at the bottom of the screen. If a receiver attacks a certain depth, for the case of this article we'll say 8 yards, it now reverts to a form of man-to-man coverage for that defender.
The caveat to that, however, is that if you are a team that passes off receivers mid-route, as the Eagles appear to do on this play, it can get a bit hairy. Thielen does a great job of working up toward Jenkins, certainly at a depth of where it could be seen as a man-to-man situation. But it appears as if Jenkins and McLeod execute a pass-off here. After acknowledging the run fake in the backfield and confirming that he doesn't have to come downhill to attack running back Dalvin Cook, McLeod looks to pick up Thielen on the crosser. That means that he is not available to play in the deep quarter of the field.
Douglas, playing outside and funneling the receiver in, as he's coached to do, struggles to match up with Diggs down the field. He's on an island now, and even if Jenkins had gotten on his horse from the other side to get into the deep middle, the throw from Cousins is so good that it would have fallen in for a touchdown regardless. Thielen's route, along with the play-action fake, held both safeties at mid-field. That isolated Diggs on Douglas, and with Douglas playing with outside leverage he was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Tip of the cap to Minnesota on that one.
The Vikings get the ball back just shy of midfield after a turnover on downs, and on the very first play they strike gold again. This time, it was on a busted coverage. Jenkins owned up to it after the game, saying that it was completely on him. Douglas is playing what appears to be Cover 2 technique on that play, expecting safety help over the top. Jenkins saw the threat of receivers coming in the intermediate area from across the field, and appeared to abandon his area of responsibility, leaving Douglas vulnerable over the top. Cousins hit Diggs for another explosive pass play and six more points.
This put the Eagles down 24-3 with just under 10 minutes left in the second quarter, a tough hill to climb out of for the remainder of the game.
Offensively, one of the big keys for the Eagles in this game was to stay ahead of the sticks early to give themselves manageable third downs. Minnesota entered the week with a top-10 third-down defense and a pressure package that is no joke. As an offense, you did not want to face third-and-long against this team. The numbers played out that way on Sunday, as the Eagles were 4-for-7 when faced with third-and-3-or-fewer yards to go. When it was third-and-four-plus? The Eagles were 0-for-5.
When you're playing a defense like this one, you have to take advantage of every opportunity you get. The Eagles had multiple drops in this game once again, not just the one above by tight end Zach Ertz where everything else was outstanding from the play call to the execution across the board. This was a chance to extend the drive and potentially put points on the board in what was at the time a two-score game.
Later, the Eagles were faced with a manageable third-and-4 early in the fourth quarter, down by two scores right around midfield. The decibel level picked up, and the team suffered a crucial delay of game penalty, moving the ball back 5 yards. Now, they faced third-and-9, instead of third-and-4. Minnesota turned up the heat with a Cover 0 blitz out of a "Double Mug" front, a look the Eagles likely would not have gotten had it been a shorter distance to go. There is miscommunication in the protection, and linebacker Eric Kendricks comes in clean to sack Carson Wentz.
These small breakdowns, on both sides of the ball, are tiny mistakes that lead to larger issues in the grand scheme of a win or a loss. The Eagles made critical mistakes throughout this game, and games in the NFL are decided by a handful of plays. You never know when those plays are going to happen, so you need to be ready to make them when they come.
One other individual play that has been discussed A LOT on social media and talk radio was the fake field goal attempt in the first half. The Eagles were down 24-10 with 20 seconds left, facing fourth-and-4 from the 21-yard line. Jake Elliott took a direct snap from Rick Lovato, dropped back to pass, didn't like what he saw, rolled left, and threw an interception in the red zone to end the drive. Why go for the fake there? Let's see what the coaches saw.
The Eagles study every aspect of the opposing team heading into each game. One thing continually popped up when watching the Vikings' field goal block unit. When they went all out to block a kick, they often left the weak side of the pressure wide open. Whichever side the pressure came from, the safety (Anthony Harris) would slide that way at the snap (in case a block was tipped up in the air or if a fake went to that side). That left a void with, really, no coverage, to the opposite side of the field. The cornerback on that side, Trae Waynes, would casually work upfield, as he would be the player to recover any blocked kick coming from the opposite side of the formation.
In every game this year, when the Vikings had a block on, they showed that look. On the first field goal of the game, a 53-yard boot, the Vikings did the same exact thing. The ONLY time they don't do this, is when they line up in their "safe" look, with defenders playing a bit softer at the snap, falling away from the line to protect against a fake field goal try. Minnesota, to that point, had typically shown its hand pre-snap, with defenders looking rather lackadaisical before the snap if a block wasn't going to be attempted.
The Eagles come up to attempt this fake, see the defense line up like it's going to be a block. This should be a nice, easy completion for Elliott, with Dallas Goedert leaking out to the left. Not only is the potential there for a touchdown, being just 20 yards away, but even with someone coming from across the field in coverage, Goedert should have enough time on this out-breaking route to get out of bounds, allowing the Eagles at least a couple of shots to throw the ball into the end zone.
Was there a risk? Sure, but the juice was worth the squeeze. The Eagles and Doug Pederson stayed true to themselves, went for the fake with the hope of converting and getting a touchdown to make it a one-score game going into the locker room. Instead, they turned the ball over, and the score stayed status quo.
Let's wrap this up with a look at a couple of positives from this game. Miles Sanders continues to be a bright spot for this Eagles team, as the coaches create ways to get him the ball downfield every week in the passing game.
Sanders has proven to be an X-factor out of the backfield as a pass catcher. This has now been four straight games where he has posted a play of 30-plus yards from scrimmage. With his speed and elusiveness, he's a tough matchup for linebackers in space, and it gives quarterback Carson Wentz and the rest of the group an element this offense has lacked vertically down the field from that spot. This is a great tool to have moving forward.
Also, the run defense continues to dominate. Fletcher Cox and the Eagles' front seven limited Dalvin Cook to just 41 yards rushing on 16 carries (2.6 yards per carry). Cook's longest run of the day went for 14 yards, and it happened on the opening drive when the Eagles had 10 players on the field during a quick substitution. Stopping the Minnesota run game was going to be pivotal in this game, and had it not been for other issues elsewhere on both sides of the ball, it would have been a huge reason why the team came away with a road win.
At the end of the day, the Eagles are tied for first place in the division, and go on the road for another tough test to potentially take hold of the East with a win in Dallas. It will be a tough matchup on both sides of the ball, but this is a team that is up for the challenge, especially with the potential reinforcements waiting in the wings.
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominatedEagles Game Planshow 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 theJourney 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.