MINNEAPOLIS – This time, as the Eagles landed in Minneapolis for a football game, there was no cadre of cameras and swarms of media taping their every move. The fans who greeted the team in the hotel numbered in the dozens, not the hundreds. The temperatures were cold, but a solid 30-35 degrees warmer than the frigid conditions during the week leading up to Super Bowl LII in February 2018.
This time, the Eagles on Saturday arrived in Minneapolis a 3-2 football team, winners of two straight games, beginning a three-week gauntlet of games on the road against teams with a combined record of 10-5. The focus is on the Minnesota Vikings, and only the Vikings, and the essence of the matchup comes down to, as it always seems, the line of scrimmage.
In the case of the Eagles, the line of scrimmage has been a tale of two groups through five games in this 2019 regular season. On one side is an offensive line that has been – knocking on wood here – remarkably intact and expectedly outstanding. Save for the struggle in Atlanta, where even in that game the Eagles put things together and led late in the fourth quarter, the offensive line has been terrific at protecting quarterback Carson Wentz and providing holes for a running game that has the makings of something outstanding.
On the other side is the defensive line, which underwent a significant series of changes in the offseason and has had its varying degrees of ups and downs. By trading Michael Bennett and seeing Chris Long retire and flipping the switch to younger players in the form of Derek Barnett, Josh Sweat, and even a dash of Daeshon Hall to go along with veterans Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry, the Eagles changed their personality off the edge. Inside, the team invested in Malik Jackson and brought back Tim Jernigan and expected a dynamic trio along with Fletcher Cox. Injuries have marred that vision, with Jackson down after the opener with a foot injury and Jernigan one week later suffering a foot injury that has kept him out. As a result, the defensive line has taken time to find itself – maintaining excellence against the run (first in the league, 63 yards per game) and inconsistency when opposing quarterbacks drop back to pass.
Put simply, the Eagles know that to win on Sunday against a well-balanced Vikings team coming off its best win of the season over the New York Giants, they have to win at the line.
“That’s usually the case,” center Jason Kelce said. “We have a lot of confidence in what we do. We know they’re good up front. They mix up their looks, they bring great pressure off the edge. We know it’s going to be a hostile environment. All of that. This is where you need to play your best football.”
The Eagles’ experienced offensive line has warriored through five games with admirable durability and performance. Jason Peters and Lane Johnson have controlled the edges, and they’ll need their best games here to win against Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen. Kelce and guards Isaac Seumalo and Brandon Brooks will have their hands full against Minnesota tackles Linval Joseph and Shamar Stephen. The entire line, along with Wentz and the skill-position players, must be on the same wavelength with communication and recognition as they see Minnesota rotate through its pre-snap gyrations as they send different pressure packages.
On defense, the Eagles have the task of containing running back Dalvin Cook, who is second in the league in both rushing and total yards from scrimmage, and putting heat on quarterback Kirk Cousins, who is deadly when he’s given time. The Eagles know that from the past with Cousins, who has a 5-3 record against Philadelphia, including a 23-21 win last season at Lincoln Financial Field.
“We need to make this about us,” defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. “We know what they like to do. They’re a good team, a good offense. But it’s more about what we do and how we execute our plan. That’s really our focus.”
It comes down to no-frills football. The Vikings are going to mix it up on offense working around the dynamic talents of Cook, whom the Eagles have schemed all week to contain. How do they do that? Doesn’t every team look to rein in Cook, to no avail this season (other than the Chicago Bears defense, which limited Cook to 70 total yards from scrimmage on 20 touches)? If the Eagles stop the run, they have a chance against receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. If Cousins can execute the play-action passing game, the Eagles will be at a disadvantage.
On offense, it’s about handling the pressure off the edge and seeing and accounting for the Vikings' blitz package. The X’s and O’s have been studied all week.
Now it’s time to play. It’s time to find out what this Eagles team is all about as the meat of the schedule arrives. It’s a critical, telling stretch. And it’s going to come down to the line of scrimmage, a strength of this football team.
Check out what the players are wearing for their trip to Minnesota to play the Vikings.