Gameday is here! The Eagles are in Minneapolis to take on the Minnesota Vikings in a battle of 3-2 teams.
The Eagles have won two straight, including last Sunday's historic 31-6 win over the New York Jets. Historic? Yes, the Eagles became the first team in NFL history to record 10 sacks and score touchdowns via a fumble return and an interception return all in the same game.
Minnesota, meanwhile, has followed the pattern of a win followed by a loss all season. Good news for the Eagles is that the Vikings won their last game: a 28-10 decision over the New York Giants.
This isn't the Eagles' first game in Minnesota's U.S. Bank Stadium. We all know what happened on February 4, 2018 in Super Bowl LII. Of course, it wasn't against the Minnesota Vikings. And the crowd will not be a pro-Eagles crowd on Sunday, either.
The Eagles and the Vikings have battled in each of Doug Pederson's four seasons as head coach. The Eagles were victorious in the first two matchups, including the NFC Championship Game to get to Super Bowl LII. But the Vikings marched to Philadelphia last season and held off the Eagles for a 23-21 win.
This marks the start of a critical three-game road trip for the Eagles, who are tied with the Dallas Cowboys atop the NFC East. The two rivals will meet next Sunday night. The Vikings, despite the winning record, are in last place in a hotly contested NFC North.
THE VIKINGS ON OFFENSE
Quarterback Kirk Cousins was signed by Minnesota in the 2018 offseason. Unable to take the Vikings to the playoffs in his first year with the squad, the Vikings fortified the coaching staff by bringing in former Super Bowl winning head coach Gary Kubiak to be the assistant head coach/offensive advisor to help offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski. Rick Dennison was brought it to solidify the run game and oversee the offensive line.
The Vikings have a balanced attack led by running back Dalvin Cook, who is second in the NFL in both rushing yards and yards from scrimmage. Cook has 542 yards on the ground and another 200 as a receiver. Rookie Alexander Mattison has been a reliable backup to Cook, gaining 189 yards on the ground. Cook averages 5.9 yards per carry, while Mattison gain 5.6. The Eagles have not allowed 100 yards to a TEAM, let alone an individual, in eight straight regular-season games. Philadelphia is also the No. 1 team against the run. It's strength vs. strength here. It should be noted that the Vikings will be without starting guard Josh Kline.
As for Cousins, the emphasis on the run game has made him an efficient passer. Cousins has a completion percentage of 68.3 along with an average yards per attempt of 8.3 that's tied for the fifth highest in the league. Cousins has done damage against the Eagles in the past with Washington and even last year with the Vikings, so don't discount the quarterback. Stefanski and Kubiak have done a great job of designing plays where Cousins fakes the handoff and rolls out of the pocket to use his mobility to buy extra time, create a new pocket, and find one of his weapons downfield. The Eagles need to generate the pass rush they did last week when they had 10 sacks, but just as important don't fall for the fakes. Discipline will be of the utmost importance and that's difficult when you have to contend with the run game that Minnesota presents.
Cousins and wide receiver Adam Thielen have tremendous chemistry, especially inside the red zone. Thielen had 130 yards and two touchdowns in last week's win over the Giants. Stefon Diggs is another crafty route runner who went for over 100 yards two weeks ago in Chicago. Sidney Jones is back for the Eagles, coming off a hamstring injury. His return comes at an important time.
THE VIKINGS ON DEFENSE
This is a veteran-laden unit that is well versed in Mike Zimmer's pressure-heavy scheme. The Vikings are fifth in the league in points allowed (14.6), fourth in yards allowed (292.4), sixth in passing yards allowed (204.2), and ninth in rushing yards allowed (88.2). Whew!
Minnesota is able to get to the quarterback with its front four thanks to ends Danielle Hunter (five sacks) and Everson Griffen (three sacks). The battle on the edges against Jason Peters and Lane Johnson will be worth the price of admission on Sunday.
Zimmer is known, however, for his A-gap pressures, as offensive coordinator Mike Groh called him the Godfather of them earlier in the week. The Eagles will need to watch players like Anthony Barr, who is the team's rush linebacker, and safety Harrison Smith, who can run from all over the field.
The Vikings will even line up with five players along the line and confuse the offense by sending different players at the quarterback. Could all five rush? Yes. Could four rush and another drop back in coverage to take away a passing lane? Yes. Quarterback Carson Wentz and center Jason Kelce will need to be in sync with what they're seeing pre-snap on Sunday. Plus, crowd noise will be a factor, even with as well as Eagles fans travel.
The interior of the line will make it tough for the Eagles as well. Linval Joseph returned a Wentz fumble for a touchdown last season at Lincoln Financial Field. Shamar Stephen can also provide a pass rush from the interior.
Eric Kendricks flies all around the second level at linebacker, while Smith, the All-Pro safety, patrols the back end with corners Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes. The only injury note on this side of the ball is that weakside linebacker Ben Gedeon is out.
The Eagles who have been great on third down and in the red zone face a unit that is fifth in red zone defense and ninth best on third down.
ODDS AND ENDS
Winning in red zone adds up for offense
The offense has scored touchdowns on 9 of its last 11 trips into its opponents' red zones, a key statistic that has lifted the Eagles to sixth in the NFL in touchdown efficiency inside the 20-yard line.
It's an important number, and it's a tribute to the emphasis the Eagles put into their red zone preparation.
"Success is the red zone is something we're always going to emphasize, in finishing drives in the red zone," quarterback Carson Wentz said. "Obviously, we're going to come away with three (points) at times, but we want to score every time we're down there. It's hard to get down there, so we want to make sure we finish when we get down there. The big plays will come, those will happen, but we'll always emphasize scoring, getting in the end zone when we're down there."
After the Eagles scored four touchdowns on four red zone trips in Green Bay, head coach Doug Pederson talked about the work the offense has done dating all the way back to the spring.
"We made an emphasis and focus on it in OTAs and Training Camp," Pederson said. "We've done a great job of studying our own offense there and it's a credit to our offensive personnel. In the past there, we had turnovers, penalties, sacks, negative plays that kept us from scoring. This year we're not seeing that as much and it's allowing us to score."
Tackling the Vikings' dominant run game
It is no secret that a majority of the Minnesota Vikings' success on offense comes from its run game. As a team, the Vikings have produced 832 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on the ground through five games. Running back Dalvin Cook leads the team and is second in the league with 542 of those rushing yards and five touchdowns. His quickness and shiftiness are something the Eagles' defense has studied to bring him to the ground.
"He's explosive. I know it's faster than what you think in person," defensive end Brandon Graham said. "He's been gassing everybody. He has that speed and burst through the line. When you get your one-on-one with him, you have to make sure you get him on the ground or at least take your shot, so we can rally to the ball. You just have to have that mentality to get him on the ground."
Cook leads the league in runs of 20-plus yards. His most recent one happened in the last week's matchup against the New York Giants, where Cook gained 41 yards late in the third quarter.
"They are running the ball really good," defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. "It will be a real test for us this weekend. Dalvin Cook is probably their best player on offense. He's making a lot of things go for the offense. He is what's making the offense right now because he can run the ball so good."
BY THE NUMBERS
14: The all-time series between the Eagles and the Vikings is tied at 14-14. Philadelphia has won seven of the last 10 matchups against Minnesota.
68.4: Philadelphia is tied for fifth in the NFL with a 68.4 percent red zone TD efficiency, which is the team's highest mark through five games since 2010 (75.0 percent).
63.0: The Eagles lead the NFL in rushing defense (63.0 yards per game). Philadelphia has not allowed 100+ rushing yards in eight consecutive regular-season games.
.621: Doug Pederson has led the Eagles to a 36-22 record since 2016 (including playoffs), the highest winning percentage (.621) by a head coach in team history.
52.9: Philadelphia has produced the second-best third-down conversion rate (52.9 percent) in the NFL (1st in NFC), trailing only Houston (53.2 percent) in that category.
28.2: The Eagles rank seventh in the NFL (fourth in NFC) with 28.2 points per game. Philadelphia has scored 30+ points in three of their five games this season.
10.0: The Eagles posted 10.0 sacks in Week 5 vs. N.Y. Jets, which tied for the second most in single-game franchise history (11.0 sacks at Dallas on September 15, 1991).
45.5: After his career-high three-sack performance last week against the Jets, defensive end Brandon Graham is sixth in franchise history with 45.5 sacks.
11: Graham leads the NFL with 11 QB pressures on third and fourth down.
5: Quarterback Carson Wentz leads the NFL with five passing touchdowns on third down. He is also second in third-down passing yards (452) and fifth in third-down passer rating (117.4).
545: Running back Jordan Howard leads all active NFL running backs with 545 career rushing yards against the Vikings from his time with the Bears.
724: Another former Bear, Alshon Jeffery, leads all active NFL players with 724 career receiving yards and seven touchdowns vs. Minnesota.
Linebacker Duke Riley is facing the Vikings for the second time this season. As a member of the Atlanta Falcons back in Week 1, Riley's former team was routed by the Vikings, 28-12.
On the Vikings' offense: "It's old-school ball. It's downhill ball. They're going to run the ball. They passed the ball only 10 times, so we gotta stop the run."
Yes, quarterback Kirk Cousins attempted 10 passes in the win as Minnesota rolled up 172 yards on the ground, led by Dalvin Cook's 111.
On what makes Cook so tough to stop: "It's just the way he gets vertical. He has really, really good balance and he has the downhill strength to run you over. He's fast and he's explosive. That's the best way I can describe him.
"You gotta wrap him up. You gotta bring your pads when you play against him. He's one of the better backs in the league. He's a really, really good back."
But don't sleep on rookie running back Alexander Mattison, who has 189 yards and is averaging 5.6 yards per carry.
"He's just as good as 33 (Cook) when you watch them on tape," Riley said. "It's almost like you're watching the same guy."
As for Cousins, the Eagles must be careful when he gets outside of the pocket. The Vikings design a lot of designed boot-action and rollouts to get him in space.
"He's free and he has good vision downfield," Riley said. "He knows what the weaknesses of the defenses with where to throw it. He trusts his guys to make plays."