On the Vikings’ first offensive play of the second half, quarterback Kirk Cousins escaped pressure in his own end zone and found wide receiver Adam Thielen, who beat cornerback Jalen Mills in coverage for a 68-yard reception. It was a disheartening play for a defense that had an opportunity to get a big stop and keep field position. That became a pattern.
Two plays later, Mills covered Thielen again, this time on third down, and got the stop. Mills celebrated holding the Vikings to a field goal and Thielen took exception to it, exchanging heated words with him face-to-face. Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox defused the situation by rushing in and pulling his teammate away from the conflict.
The frustration on the Eagles' defense had reached a boiling point. In the 23-21 loss to the Vikings, missed opportunities, poor execution, and tough calls hurt the defense and turned the tide at times. In this situation, Cox needed to keep Mills from making it worse.
“That was all great words,” Cox told reporters after the game as Mills declined to speak with the media. “I think the ref was getting ready to throw the flag and I was a great teammate, went in there to pull him out of the scuffle to not cost the team 15 yards and get him to the sideline. He was trying to tell me to get his point across and I was just telling him to be smart.”
The 68-yard pass to Thielen came when the Vikings were backed at their own 5-yard line following a fumble by running back Jay Ajayi. The reception took away any hope of a tide-turning play as the Eagles trailed by two scores early in the third quarter.
It was also one of five plays that went for 20 yards or more. Last season, the Eagles took pride in keeping big plays off the board. But on a day when the Vikings gained just 77 total yards on the ground, big catches by Thielen and Stefon Diggs crushed the defense in key situations.
“Most of those plays, if you look at it, were close to the quarterback,” said safety Malcolm Jenkins. “We made some adjustments later in the game. We have to do a better job at that, making sure that we keep the ball in front of us. I think that’s a collective effort – that’s the rush, that’s blitzers, that’s the guys on the back end. But we’re an aggressive defense.”
The defense couldn’t take advantage of several important chances all game. Arguably the most pivotal situation, and the most controversial call, happened toward the end of the second quarter. On a second-and-6, defensive end Michael Bennett reached for quarterback Kirk Cousins, grabbed him by the waist, and brought him down by his legs for a loss of 8 yards – a drive-changing play.
But as he finished the sack, a flag came out immediately and roughing the passer was called. Two plays later, Cousins found Thielen in the end zone for the Vikings’ only offensive touchdown of the game. It made the score 17-3 with 16 seconds left in the half.
No one on the defense was given an explanation for the call, as it appeared tight end Kyle Rudolph blocked Bennett into Cousins. It would have been one of just two sacks in a game in which the defense amassed 11 quarterback hits but could not seem to bring Cousins down.
Head coach Doug Pederson said after the game that the situation was unfortunate. While Bennett declined to speak with reporters following the game, his teammates expressed their frustration with the call.
“I think it’s a bad call,” Cox said. “Mike gently brought him to the ground, and slid down to his legs. So, what can we do? Play the next play. ... I think it’s no excuse. I think the biggest thing is we need to adjust to it.”
“I think he hit him right at the waist and then slid down,” defensive end Chris Long said. “But what is he supposed to do, let him go? It wasn’t like he was putting him in danger. A call can change a game.”
In the second half, the defense got a stop on the drive following the 68-yard play by Thielen and allowed the offense to make it a six-point game. On the ensuing drive, linebacker Nigel Bradham recovered a dropped backwards pass and the Eagles’ offense took the ball in Minnesota territory.
But the Eagles couldn’t score any points and had to punt. The missed chance on offense, and Bradham’s potential touchdown if he had picked up the fumble cleanly, just added to the frustrations of the day.
“We need to take advantage of our opportunities, man,” Bradham said. “Being in situations that we’ve got to take advantage of, that’s what we normally do and what we expect to do. We’ve got to get it fixed.”
With the game on the line in the fourth quarter, the defense couldn’t get off the field in time. Starting at their own 11-yard line with just more than nine minutes to play, the Vikings marched with short, methodical passes, and a few key rushes by running back Latavius Murray to go 55 yards in 11 plays and take 6:24 off the clock.
By the time the Eagles kept the Vikings from moving the chains, Minnesota was able to line up for a 52-yard field goal. Kicker Dan Bailey nailed it – despite missing two shorter attempts – and made it a two-score game, 23-14, with just more than two minutes to play.
The defense simply was not able to show up in clutch situations. Missed opportunities, an ineffective pass rush, and big plays in the secondary doomed the Eagles on a day where the offense needed all the help it could get.
“We just have to make sure that we correct our mistakes,” defensive end Brandon Graham said. “Like Malcolm (Jenkins) said today, ‘We have to look at ourselves in the mirror and we have to fix it ourselves.’ Self-inflicted wounds just can’t fly – you don’t win games like that.
“We just have to stop putting ourselves in that position where we have to come from behind. We have to have a complete game and we know that.”
Take a look at the best photos from the Eagles' Week 5 game against the Minnesota Vikings.