Did you ever think you'd be so excited about a trip to Minneapolis in January? The Eagles did a great thing by getting into the playoffs, but enough celebrating and patting the guys on the back. We now have to focus on beating the Vikings and advancing. The only way to get to next week is with a W.
Minnesota believes in running the ball and playing good defense. It is a simple strategy, but one that has worked pretty well for them. The Vikings have gotten better in each of Coach Brad Childress' three seasons at the helm, culminating in a 10-6 record and NFC North division crown this year.
They feed running backs Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor a lot of carries. Short passes go to Taylor. Intermediate throws go to tight end Visanthe Shiancoe. Deep balls go to wideout Bernard Berrian. The Vikings aren't complicated, but they execute well and that makes them a good team. It also helps that they have some good players up front. Center Matt Birk and guards Anthony Herrera and Steve Hutchinson are very good run blockers.
The Vikings have an excellent defense. They finished sixth overall and first against the run. Their defensive tackles are known as the Williams Wall. Kevin Williams is the more athletic of the two. He is quick off the ball and a good pass rusher as well as a good run defender. Pat Williams is the massive tackle who controls the middle of the field. He's dealing with a broken shoulder and has missed some recent games. He's hoping to play on Sunday. Jared Allen is the best pass rusher and can be an extremely disruptive force.
Ben Leber and Chad Greenway might be the most underrated pair of outside linebackers in the NFL. Both can cover, tackle and rush the passer. Safety Darren Sharper only had one interception, his lowest total in a decade. His tackling is sloppy, but normally he's enough of a ballhawk to make up for it. Madieu Williams has been solid in his first year in Minnesota. Cornerbacks Antoine Winfield is a starter for the NFC in the Pro Bowl and Cedric Griffin is solid. They only combined for three interceptions, not an impressive total. Both guys are good tacklers and hitters. They did combine for eight forced fumbles, a very impressive total for corners.
The matchups are going to be interesting. Minnesota focuses on stopping the run and trying to force teams to pass. The Eagles love to throw the ball. Something has to give. I don't think the Vikings will change their gameplan. They will focus on shutting down Brian Westbrook. Then they'll try to pressure Donovan McNabb. They'll hope their secondary can contain the Eagles receivers.
I think the Eagles offense will be able to move the ball and score points. DeSean Jackson and Kevin Curtis can make plays. I don't see the Vikings defensive backs shutting them down. L.J. Smith/Brent Celek and Jason Avant will make catches in the middle of the field. Avant, especially, could have a big day.
The key for the Eagles is getting the ball to their running backs, whether on runs or pass plays. Even though Minnesota is great at shutting down the run, you cannot not abandon the ground game. You must run in order to make play-action passes more effective. Vikings defenders sell out to stop the run. They can be vulnerable to downfield passes. Minnesota was tied for fifth in the league most in allowing pass plays of 20 or more yards. Those plays won't come if the Eagles don't mix in some runs.
Screen and swing passes could be important weapons. We all know how dangerous Westbrook can be when he gets the ball out in space. Correll Buckhalter showed he's also a talented playmaker last week with his 59-yard catch and run. That play broke the game open and the Eagles never looked back. The coaches must get the ball to the running backs.
The offensive line has a big challenge in taking on Minnesota's defensive front. Tra Thomas will battle Allen most of the game. That is a tough task. Allen led the team with 14.5 sacks. He's quick off the ball and has a non-stop motor. Todd Herremans, Jamaal Jackson and Nick Cole will have the daunting task of battling the Williams Wall. Pat Williams is next to impossible to move off the ball. He is huge, but also agile and quick for a big guy. Kevin Williams is the guy who gets penetration and disrupts plays in the backfield. Jackson and one of the guards will double Pat a good deal of the time. That leaves the other guard to single block Kevin. Our guys must control them. You don't shut them down, but hope to limit what they do.
Don't expect the Eagles to go up and down the field with ease, but they should move the ball and score points. I don't see Minnesota shutting down the Eagles passing attack.
Now let's talk about the Eagles defense. They've been on a major roll in the month of December. Don't expect that to stop. Minnesota comes into the game with the intention of running the ball first and foremost. The Eagles know this and will stack the line of scrimmage in order to control Adrian Peterson. No one really shuts Peterson down completely, but you must take away the big plays and turn him into a 3-yard runner. The Eagles did just that in a 2007 game that they won against the Vikings. Peterson finished that game with 20 carries for 70 yards. He didn't get into the end zone and had a long run of only 17 yards. If the Eagles can repeat that kind of defense, they will win.
One thing to watch for is Peterson's ball security. He had five fumbles in the last four games. You can bet the Eagles will be trying to strip the ball every time they get Peterson bottled up. Brian Dawkins will make it his personal mission to knock the ball loose.
The big key in stopping Peterson is controlling the edges. He's a downhill runner. If he gets up a head of steam and has a running lane to the outside, he will break off a long run. Expect the Eagles to really focus on funneling Peterson inside. While the Williams Wall is pretty dominant for Minnesota don't overlook how good Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley have been for us. Minnesota was first against the run, but the Eagles were number four. The Eagles also gave up fewer touchdowns on the ground.
Can Minnesota throw the ball effectively? That is a huge question and could be the deciding factor in the game. Tarvaris Jackson will be the quarterback. He's been on a good roll the last month. That is misleading when you look inside the numbers. Three of those teams are ranked 19th or lower in total defense. The one good team he faced was the Giants. That was in the season finale when New York rested some starters and had nothing to play for.
How will Jackson fare against the number three defense in the NFL in a playoff setting? That's a huge jump from playing well against the Lions or Cardinals. Jim Johnson will attack him. The Eagles will blitz off the edges and up the middle. Jackson can make plays with his mobility. He's a good runner, but also will buy time and look for receivers. One of his best plays is the bootleg. Jackson is very tough on a defense when he gets outside and has a run/pass option.
Trent Cole had eight tackles and a pair of sacks against the Vikings in the 2007 meeting. Look for him to have another big game. He didn't show up on the stat sheet last week, but he absolutely pounded Tony Romo. Chris Clemons could be another big factor. Johnson may want to run his Okie package. If so, Clemons would be the Joker and would have the responsibility of chasing down Jackson.
Jackson's primary target will be Berrian. He averaged 20 yards per reception and led the team with seven touchdown catches. Cornerbacks Sheldon Brown and Asante Samuel will have their hands full with him. I think Johnson will have one of his safeties playing deep most of the game to help the corners with Berrian. Dawkins and Quintin Mikell will take turns coming up near the line in run support and staying back to play the deep middle.
The Eagles defense only allowed one offensive touchdown in the last three games. That came on a short field after a turnover. Will the Vikings be able to put together long scoring drives? Will they be able to come up with big plays? I don't think so on both counts. Jackson could come up with a broken play that turns into a big gain, but I just don't see Minnesota getting the best of the Eagles defense with any consistency.
Special teams could give the Eagles an added boost. Minnesota was dead last in punt coverage. They allowed four punts to be returned for touchdowns. DeSean Jackson could be a huge factor with his speed and elusiveness. The Vikings are only slightly better on kickoff coverage in terms of stats. Quintin Demps could also help the Eagles win the field position battle.
If the Eagles can put last week behind them, they should play well. The offense has been a little bit up and down, but they don't need to be great if the defense plays as well as I expect them to. The last three Super Bowl winners rode their defense in the postseason. I sure hope our defense can carry over their December play into the postseason.
2009 could get off to a great start if the defense continues to dominate.