Welcome to a Big Gameday. In Week 5, the Eagles play Minnesota in a renewal of a rivalry most recently played out in the NFC Championship Game. At 2-2, the Eagles are coming off a gut-wrenching loss in Tennessee. At 1-2-1, the Vikings face a desperate moment. What are we looking forward to today?
1. The Injury Factor
It’s very real. The Eagles won’t have defensive end Derek Barnett, out with a shoulder injury. That means Michael Bennett should have a more prominent role. Bennett, Chris Long, Brandon Graham, and rookie Josh Sweat will take the defensive end reps. Running back Darren Sproles is out, so that means more work for Wendell Smallwood working in the rotation with Jay Ajayi. Still no definitive word on Corey Clement, who appears to be a true game-time decision. He’s listed as questionable with a quad injury.
For Minnesota, there are some players missing as well. The Vikings aren’t expected to have second-year running back Dalvin Cook, who has a hamstring injury. They’re going to play today without two defensive starters, end Everson Griffen and cornerback Trae Waynes. Minnesota has also ruled out cornerback and special-teams ace Marcus Sherels and defensive end Tashawn Bower. The Vikings are dressing only two true defensive ends for this game, and a defense that has taken a significant step back this season will also miss two cornerbacks.
2. An Eagles Defensive Bounce-Back
For two-plus quarters last week, the Eagles performed very well against Tennessee as the Titans managed just three points. But then the whole thing fell apart after Philadelphia took a 17-3 lead, and it reached its nadir when Tennessee converted three fourth-down plays in its game-winning touchdown drive in overtime. Minnesota has a high-octane passing game led by quarterback Kirk Cousins and a plethora of excellent pass receivers – Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Laquon Treadwell, and tight end Kyle Rudolph – and the Eagles have to expect that Cousins won’t hold the ball very long as he gets it out to his receivers. The quick-passing game is something that has hurt the Eagles in the past against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, Eli Manning and the Giants, Tom Brady and the Patriots, and even last week in Tennessee. What adjustments does Jim Schwartz make? Does he play his cornerbacks more aggressively? Does he take more chances with the blitz? Does he rely on his defensive line to dominate at the line of scrimmage?
The Eagles cannot allow Cousins to sit in the pocket and hold the football. He will pick any defense apart if he has time. The book on Cousins has always been to get in his face and force mistakes. The Eagles did it to some degree of effectiveness last season when he played with Washington. Today, they need to get on Cousins and stick on him. Minnesota hasn’t run the ball very well all season and likely will have to turn to plodder Latavius Murray to handle most of the rushing attack. He lacks big-time explosiveness, so the Eagles go in knowing they’ve got a one-dimensional Vikings team on the other side of the ball.
3. How Does The Offense Play This One?
Minnesota’s 2017 defense was statistically the very best in the league, ranking No. 1 in fewest points allowed and No. 1 in third-down defense. Then the NFC Championship Game happened and the Eagles rolled the Vikings' defense. Minnesota has yet to recover.
The Eagles have talked all week of the respect they have for the Minnesota defense, despite the poor showing through four games. Minnesota is still very fast on defense and the secondary is capable of playing terrific coverage. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes is expected to shadow Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, so that’s a fantastic matchup to watch.
It’s going to be telling to see what kind of adjustments the Eagles make up front in light of the pressure that has reached quarterback Carson Wentz this season. Teams have blitzed more effectively, defenses are using more stunts and loops up front to force the offensive line to pass off defenders in pass protection, and that has created some pass-rushing lanes. Reports this week indicated that Isaac Seumalo would replace Stefen Wisniewski at left guard, but the Eagles did not confirm that report. We’ll see today. Whoever plays has to be spot on with the assignment, because Wentz needs more protection and time to set up in the pocket. He’s taken too many hits.
If the offensive line plays well, the Eagles have options here. They want to run the football and take control of the line of scrimmage and then go after Minnesota’s secondary.
4. The “Desperation” Factor
Simply put, the team that loses has a hole from which to dig. The NFC East is wide open, but don’t forget the Eagles have a short week after this game before playing on the road at the Giants. The Vikings need to keep pace in the competitive NFC North.
Which team plays more “desperate” football in this game? Add on the idea that the Vikings are seeking “revenge” from the NFC Championship Game loss and you understand the emotional intangibles that come into play here. There’s a lot at stake.
5. Who Steps Up To Help The Eagles Win?
Let’s start in the defensive secondary, where the Eagles know they have to play a lot better. Cornerback Jalen Mills has a target on his chest as opposing quarterbacks are going to throw his way short, and they’re going to try to bait him with double moves from the receivers. Mills, as mentally tough as they come, is in an important spot here. Everyone is watching him. Two, the Eagles need better play across the board in the secondary and they are expected to increase the role of rookie Avonte Maddox at safety next to Malcolm Jenkins. The indication is that veteran Corey Graham will have his reps reduced after playing 71 snaps last week in Nashville, and that Maddox’s reps will bounce up.
Wide receiver Nelson Agholor suddenly had a case of the “drops” last week, failing to hang on three Wentz passes. The Eagles need Agholor to dominate from the slot.
Offensively, the Eagles rank 18th in the NFL in red zone touchdown percentage, and that’s just not good enough. How will the Eagles attack in the red zone today?
And then there is this: The Eagles have the third-most penalties in the NFL, which is totally unacceptable. They need to play smarter, more disciplined football.