Before Sam Bradford returns to Philadelphia with the undefeated Minnesota Vikings, take a look at some of the key players to watch for in Sunday's game.
Two weeks ago, Eagles fans looked at the Week 7 meeting with Minnesota as a possible matchup of two undefeated teams, duking it out for NFC bragging rights. The Vikings held up their end of the bargain, remaining undefeated and proving to be one of the premier teams in the NFC. The Eagles on the other hand have stumbled, falling two weeks in a row, though only by a grand total of eight points.
There's no time like now to bounce back.
Maybe it was the bye week killing some of the early momentum. Maybe it was teams having more Eagles film to study. Maybe it was too much looking ahead to Minnesota. Whatever it was that slowed the Eagles down the last two weeks, it's a safe bet that they will come out firing in front of the hometown fans on Sunday afternoon. After a 3-0 start was followed by two-straight losses, this is a chance for the real Eagles to stand up and show themselves.
The big storyline here is the return of Sam Bradford, the quarterback with the enigmatic Eagles career. Bradford was traded to the Eagles before the 2015 season in a move that no one saw coming. The former No. 1 overall pick was acquired to be the conductor of Chip Kelly's offensive orchestra, despite his history of serious knee injuries. Bradford battled back from his latest knee injury to be ready in time for the start of the Eagles' season, but he never really got into sync as a passer until the second half of the season.
This past offseason completely changed things for both Bradford and the Eagles. Howie Roseman saw an opportunity to move up in the draft and select Carson Wentz, the potential next face of the Eagles' franchise. Bradford left offseason training, much to the fans' chagrin, but came back in time for mandatory workouts. Then, just as his solid play in the preseason was winning some fans back, Bradford was traded to Minnesota and Wentz was named the Eagles' starter.
Bradford always seemed to have Eagles fans split on his ability as a quarterback, so it will be interesting to see (and hear) the reception that he receives on Sunday.
There is, however, much more to this game than Bradford's return. Here's the preview ...
- Alex Smith
Last Time They Met
Vikings 48, Eagles 30
*December 15, 2013 – Mall of America Field at HHH Metrodome *
It's been almost three years since the Eagles and Vikings last met and when they do so this Sunday, Philadelphia will be looking for a more solid showing and stronger finish than the last time the two teams went head to head in Week 15 of the 2013 season.
Riding a five-game win streak, the Birds traveled to Minnesota for their first road game in over a month. Unfortunately for the Eagles, they would never take command of the matchup, playing behind from the start. Philadelphia gave up the first points of the afternoon on a 57-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Matt Cassel. At the half, they trailed the Vikings, 17-9, and had yet to notch a touchdown of their own.
Starting with the ball in the third quarter, the Eagles' offense went three-and-out and the defense failed to stop Minnesota from reaching the end zone again on the following drive. Suddenly with 4:45 left in the third quarter, the Vikings added to the score with a field goal and the Eagles were down by 18 points.
Not all hope was lost yet though, as quarterback Nick Foles and wide receiver DeSean Jackson connected on a 30-yard touchdown, the team's first of the game. The score brought Philadelphia within 11 in the third quarter. Then, linebacker Mychal Kendricks came up with an interception on the Vikings' next offensive drive, putting the ball back in Foles' hands. Three plays later, he and tight end Zach Ertz managed another touchdown, cutting Minnesota's lead to five points.
While it looked as though the Eagles had all the momentum heading into the fourth quarter, it quickly faded and fizzled out. The Philadelphia defense allowed three Vikings touchdowns in the final 15 minutes of play while the Eagles were only able to score once more. When the game ended, the Birds were on the losing side of things, falling to the Vikings, 48-30. The loss marked the team's first since October and its final one of the 2013 regular season as the Eagles went on to win out in December.
- Julie Bacanskas
When The Eagles Have The Ball**
The Eagles were not able to get into a rhythm against the Washington Redskins last Sunday on offense and this week presents their toughest test of the season.
Minnesota enters Week 7 ranked first in scoring defense (12.6 points per game), second in yards allowed (287.6), fourth against the run, sixth against the pass, tied for third in sacks (19) and tied for second in takeaways (12).
This unit has been problematic for some of the league's best players.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was held to a 47.6 passer rating, the fourth lowest of his career. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had a 70.7 rating, the lowest in 17 career games against Minnesota. Giants receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. gained a career-low 23 yards in their meeting.
The Vikings are talented at every level of the defense, as all 11 starters return from a team that ranked fifth in points allowed last season.
Defensive end Everson Griffen earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors following the October 3 win over Carolina when he tied a career high with three sacks. Since 2014, Griffen is fifth in the league in sacks. It will be a heavyweight showdown with Griffen squaring off against left tackle Jason Peters. In addition to Griffen, Brian Robison is tied for the team lead with four sacks and reserve end Danielle Hunter became just the second player in franchise history to score on a fumble return and post a safety in the same season. Up the middle, defensive tackle Tom Johnson has two sacks and a team-high 31 quarterback hurries.
The pressure up front is one big reason why the Vikings lead the league in both opposing passer rating (65.3) and completion percentage (55.5).
Eagles fans will recognize the name on the back of the man in the middle of the Vikings' defense. Eric Kendricks, Mychal's brother, is second on the team with 37 tackles and first in pass deflections with seven. In 2015, Kendricks was the first rookie to lead the team in tackles since 1961. He started off 2016 with a 77-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Week 1 win over Tennessee.
Kendricks is flanked by former first-round pick Anthony Barr on the strong side and longtime Viking Chad Greenway on the weak side. Greenway is the trusted veteran with a career 1,297 tackles, good for fourth in franchise history.
There is no dropoff on the back end of the defense. The Vikings have allowed just four passing touchdowns this season. Former first-round pick Xavier Rhodes offers tremendous size and length (6-2, 210 pounds) and was the main reason for Beckham's performance a few weeks back. Cornerback Terence Newman is in his 15th NFL season and ranks second among active players with 41 interceptions. 2015 first-round pick cornerback Trae Waynes leads the team with two interceptions. The best player, however, is safety Harrison Smith. He holds the franchise record for interceptions returned for a touchdowns with four, and ranks fourth in sacks by a defensive back.
Quarterback Carson Wentz and company will have their hands full this Sunday against the Vikings.
- Chris McPherson
When The Vikings Have The Ball**
When the Vikings' offense takes the field at the Linc on Sunday afternoon, one face will be overwhelmingly familiar to the entire Eagles' roster and coaching staff – Sam Bradford.
Minnesota's quarterback, who was set to start his second season in Philadelphia until he was traded on September 3, is having a solid beginning to 2016 with his new team. Through the four games Bradford has played, he's led the Vikings to a 4-0 record and racked up a 109.8 quarterback rating, second best in the NFL. Bradford is also completing 70.4 percent of his passes and has yet to turn the ball over. In fact, the Vikings' offense has done an excellent job in general of protecting the football. The only turnover on the season, a fumble, was actually charged to the team's defense.
However, coming off the bye, Bradford and the entire offense will be forced to make adjustments with regards to the offensive line. Since the start of the season, the Vikings have lost both their starting tackles, Matt Kalil and Andre Smith, to injury. To account for those losses, Minnesota signed former No. 1 overall pick Jake Long, who hasn't started a game since the 2014 season, a little over a week ago. To add to the matter, right guard Brandon Fusco is working his way back from a concussion sustained on the opening drive of the team's last game against Houston. Headed into this matchup, the position group is certainly a bit of a question mark for Minnesota.
Although the team is still undefeated, sitting at 5-0, that hasn't been due to its run game. The Vikings are last among NFL teams in both yards on the ground per game (70.6) and rushing yards per carry (2.5). Without running back Adrian Peterson, they've focused much more on the pass game. After the Eagles' defense performance against the run last weekend in Washington, taking on the Vikings could give it a chance to redeem itself. Philadelphia currently ranks 17th in the league, allowing 104.6 rushing yards per game.
Against the pass, the Eagles have been much better, allowing only 207.4 passing yards per game, which ranks fourth best among defenses in the NFL. The Vikings, on the other hand, are finishing with 245.2 passing yards a game on average and 11.6 yards per passing play. Additionally, Bradford's top target, Stefon Diggs, missed the team's last game and is still trying to work his way back from a groin injury. Through four games, the receiver has racked up 372 yards and a touchdown on 25 catches.
Even with back-to-back losses, the Eagles' defense is still among the NFL's best in terms of points allowed per game with 15.6. If the unit can get back to playing as it did in its first three games of the season, the Vikings' offense should not outmatch Philadelphia.
- Julie Bacanskas
1. S Malcolm Jenkins vs. TE Kyle Rudolph - Pro Bowl tight end Kyle Rudolph is the most-targeted player in the pass game for the Minnesota Vikings. He is the security blanket for quarterback Sam Bradford. Against Carolina in Week 3, Rudolph had seven catches on 10 targets for 70 yards and a touchdown. With wide receiver Stefon Diggs battling a groin injury, Rudolph's role is that much more important.
2. RB Darren Sproles vs. LB Anthony Barr - This is a game where the Eagles need a big play from the Pro Bowl return specialist, but in the pass game. In the Eagles' last home game against Pittsburgh, Sproles had six catches for 128 yards including the 73-yard touchdown which put the game well out of reach. Barr, a former first-round pick, is an outstanding player, but has been targeted 17 times in the air and has allowed 14 catches for 170 yards and a touchdown.
3. DT Fletcher Cox vs. G Brandon Fusco - The Eagles' most dominant defensive player was held without a tackle in the loss to Washington. Do you know the last time that happened? His rookie year of 2012. Injuries have impacted the Vikings' offensive line as center Joe Berger is the only Week 1 starter who has not missed time due to injury. Fusco suffered a concussion early in the Week 5 win over Houston and is on track to return Sunday. This matchup is even more important with Bennie Logan likely out.
4. T Halapoulivaati Vaitai vs. DE Brian Robison - Quarterback Carson Wentz was sacked five times in last week's loss to Washington. Not all of them were on the rookie right tackle who made his NFL debut, but the Vikings' defensive line leads all defensive line units with 17 sacks. The left defensive end, Brian Robison, is a high-motor, relentless player who is tied for the team lead with four sacks. If the Eagles have to commit extra resources, it will offer Wentz fewer options in the pass game.
- Chris McPherson
Trends To Watch
28.2 - Two of the top defenses in the NFL go head to head on Sunday. Minnesota leads the league with an average of 12.6 points allowed per game, while the Eagles are tied for third at 15.6 points allowed per game. Defense looks to be the name of the game for Sunday afternoon.
2.5 - Minnesota ranks last in the league in every major rushing category. The Vikings average just 2.5 yards per carry and have a grand total of just 144 rushing yards on the season.
31:36 - Ball control will play a big factor in Sunday's game. The Vikings are sixth in the NFL in terms of average time of possession at 31:36. The Eagles are tied for the league lead at 33:09 in average time of possession.
17 - The Eagles and Vikings are the only two teams in football with fewer than two turnovers. Minnesota has turned the ball over just once all season and has yet to throw an interception. The Eagles and Vikings have a combined turnover differential of 17.
- Alex Smith