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Vikings at Eagles preview: For Wentz we came

In his Week 7 preview, Daily Norseman writer Eric Thompson embraces rooting against his fellow North Dakota State alumnus, Carson Wentz.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins
Wentz has impressed in his rookie season but could be in for a long day against the Vikings.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Last weekend was rough for me in a football respect. The Vikings were on a bye, which meant my Sunday afternoon was full of chores and trips to Target instead of plopping down on the couch and watching football for 3-plus hours. Both of my for-money fantasy teams got beat because I made every possible incorrect decision regarding who to start. The Packers lost and sparked another round of “What’s Wrong with Aaron Rodgers?” think pieces, but I couldn’t even completely enjoy that. I hate Dallas almost as much as Green Bay, and now it looks like that December 1st game against the Cowboys is going to be a really tough one. It was an unfulfilling football Sunday to say the least.

I wasn’t exactly going into Sunday in a great mood either; my football Saturday was even worse. North Dakota State, my beloved alma mater and five-time defending champion of the FCS division, was beaten at home by South Dakota State. It was the first time the Bison had lost to their “rival” school from the south in the past nine meetings.

Since I tend to be rather braggadocious about NDSU on Twitter from time to time¹, people saw the rare opportunity to give me crap about the Bison and came at me with both barrels. The schadenfreude in my mentions was at an all-time high. Neutral fans unloaded on me. All 17 people from South Dakota smart enough to sign up for a Twitter account were especially venomous.² I’ll admit that even though I had it coming, it was rough.

[¹: This is a very large understatement. I’m incredibly insufferable on Twitter about the Bison. I’m almost at Ted/Ohio State and Arif/Tre Roberson levels.]
[²: What, did you think that one measly regular season loss was going to make me less insufferable? WE’RE FIVE-TIME DEFENDING CHAMPIONS! It’s gonna take more than that. GOOOOOO BISON!]

While I was a little perturbed with everyone teasing me about the Bison loss, another ongoing joke aggravated me even more. Carson Wentz is obviously a fellow NDSU alum that I followed closely and cheered on throughout his college career. I was on the field in Frisco, Texas the last three times Wentz celebrated national championships with his Bison teammates. And now Wentz is a rookie quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, who just so happen to be the Vikings’ opponent on Sunday. Naturally, folks on Twitter have been ribbing me for most of the past two weeks, asking if I’ll be conflicted as my favorite professional team goes up against a quarterback only nine months removed from my favorite college team.

My response to that notion can best be described in a quote from Lawrence in Office Space:

The way I see it, Carson Wentz is like an old flame that you had an amicable breakup with. You’re appreciative for the times you shared and wish them nothing but the best. But deep down you’re hoping that you end up better off in the long run. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of Wentz’s career when he was with the Bison. He helped bring a lifelong Minnesota sports fan a glimpse of what it actually feels like to cheer for a perennial contender. (Spoiler alert: it feels great.) And he’s a great kid on top of everything. I’ll always be indebted to Wentz for the joy he brought me as a sports fan.

Unfortunately many of my college friends do not share this sentiment. Over the past several weeks, my Facebook feed has been riddled with people proudly rocking their #11 Eagles gear. My initial reaction was the same as when I see anyone else wearing an Eagles jersey—”oh great, here comes another insufferable asshole”—but after that reflex subsided I realized that this was not a new phenomenon. This is exactly what thousands of Packers fans did when Brett Favre went on his bizarre odyssey to New York and Minnesota at the end of his career. It’s why so many lifelong Chicago Bulls fans bought Wizards jerseys in the early 2000’s. It’s why hordes of fans switched out their blue #18’s for orange ones when Peyton Manning went to Denver.

I’m sorry, but I just don’t get it. With how often players change teams these days, how can you suddenly alter your rooting interests just because one player changed his address? That sort of fickle behavior makes no sense to me. I’ll stick to blindly rooting for an endless revolving door of athletes I don’t personally know simply because they play half their games close to where I live and wear the colors of laundry I’m accustomed to cheering for, thank you very much. Because I’m a diehard. That’s what true sports fans do.

Besides, who in their right mind would want to unhitch their wagon from what’s looking like one of the best Vikings seasons in nearly a decade? Who thinks cheering for a quarterback that’s facing this incredible Vikings defense is a good idea? If the past couple of weeks are any indication, Wentz could be in for an extremely long day against the Vikings defense.

That isn’t to say Wentz hasn’t handled pressure well thus far. He has some of the best numbers in the league when blitzed. Wentz has the size, technique, and arm strength to stand in the pocket and take the punishment needed to complete tough passes.

(This completion was negated for holding, but try to convince Wentz’s ribs that play didn’t count.)

As Wentz showed so often in college, he’s also pretty dangerous with his legs. Wentz has only 37 yards rushing this season, but where he really excels is buying time while keeping his eyes downfield for the big play. Think poor man’s version of Aaron Rodgers. (Pre-2015 Rodgers, of course. The current Aaron Rodgers is a homeless man’s version of Aaron Rodgers.)

It looks like Wentz may have to depend on his legs a lot more than he’d like on Sunday. The importance of the suspension of Lane Johnson can’t be overstated. Before Johnson’s suspension, Wentz generally had time to operate. The Eagles allowed a total of seven sacks through the first four games, and at least a few of those were due to the rookie being indecisive or not being able to find anything open downfield. Wentz had lots clean pockets and time to progress through his reads.

Last week against Washington was a much different story. With rookie Halapoulivaati Vaitai (aka Big V) in for Johnson, the Redskins brought extra blitzers on only five of Wentz’s passes. They still pressured Wentz on 38% of his dropbacks and recorded five sacks. Big V’s performance last Sunday made T.J. Clemmings look like Anthony Muñoz. If Washington was getting this kind of pressure with rushing only four, one would imagine that the Zim Reapers could make things even worse on Sunday.

The Eagles will probably try to combat the nearly inevitable pass rush with misdirection and quick-hit passes. Offensive Coordinator Frank Reich and Head Coach Doug Pederson have already done a nice job of making Wentz comfortable by including lots of simple reads that help get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands early. Some in the analytics realm have argued that Wentz’s early success has been overblown because the majority of his passes have been close to the line of scrimmage. It’s probably oversimplifying but there is some merit to the argument. Wentz has taken some shots deep in his first five games, but they have had mixed results.

Both ends of the deep pass spectrum were on display in Detroit. Wentz missed pretty badly on some passes:

And hit on a couple deep throws as well. (Although I sincerely doubt he’ll have as much time on Sunday as he did on this play.)

Hmm. A young, promising quarterback that can improvise and make plays but is widely criticized for not completing passes downfield consistently. A great guy that is beloved by everyone in the organization. Does that remind you of anyone, Vikings fans?

Nahhhhh.

Either way, we have already seen an NFC East team try to neutralize the Vikings’ pass rush with screens and short dropbacks. How’d that work for Eli Manning and the Giants? The only way I see the Vikings defense getting into trouble on Sunday is with missed tackles or blown coverage assignments. Darren Sproles is still the same shifty water bug that can turn a harmless play into six points at a moment’s notice. Pittsburgh got blown out by the Eagles because of poor execution and miscommunication, especially at linebacker. I think Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks have enough reps together by now to quell those concerns for Minnesota.

The rest of Philly’s skill position players can best be described how Jay-Z characterized other MCs in “Do It Again”: he’s alright but he’s not real. Ryan Mathews and Philadelphia’s stable of running backs won’t blow anyone away even though they’re capable of getting chunks of yardage here and there. Same with Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor at wide receiver. Zach Ertz and Brent Celek may have to focus more on helping their tackles with chip blocks than moving the chains in the passing game. Outside of a stray big play or two, I think it will be extremely difficult for Philadelphia to move the ball on the Vikings defense.

That said, Sam Bradford and the Vikings offense aren’t going to have the easiest time going up and down the field either. After three games, the Eagles defense was head and shoulders above the rest of the league statistically. Even after their two-game skid in which they allowed 21 first half points each game, Philadelphia is still top 5 in defensive DVOA.

Did playing two of the league’s worst teams (Cleveland and Chicago) to start the season help? Sure. But Jim Schwartz’s Wide 9 scheme³ and new personnel have the Eagles playing at a high level on the defensive side of the ball. Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Nigel Bradham, Jordan Hicks, Rodney McLeod, and Malcolm Jenkins are all playing well and make this defense tough through the middle at every level. (It turns out that playing less than 90 defensive snaps a game because of Chip Kelly’s hyper-paced offense constantly giving the other team the ball back is also beneficial.)

[³: The Wide 9 that Schwartz runs in Philadelphia is a slightly muted version of what he ran in Detroit. The defensive ends don’t line up quite as wide, which puts a little less pressure on the linebackers to fill gaps.]

So how did Washington shred the Eagles for 493 yards at a 7.4 yard per play clip last week? After watching the film, the Redskins didn’t appear to do anything special. They just won in the trenches. Kirk Cousins wasn’t sacked and the offensive line consistently created holes for Washington’s trio of running backs.

Losing defensive tackle Bennie Logan early in the game really hurt the Eagles. It looks like the injury will keep him sidelined on Sunday; that’s a huge loss for Philadelphia. Even with Logan out, it’s doubtful that Minnesota’s league-worst rushing attack can replicate the Redskins’ level of success. Washington’s offensive line is leaps and bounds above the Vikings. (Until Jake Long comes in and magically fixes everything this week. Right?!)

The onus will likely be on Bradford to move the ball against players that were his teammates less than 50 days ago. The Vikings will be looking to get the ball out quickly as well. The Eagles pass rush has been excellent without much blitzing, especially from Graham and Cox.

The familiarity with his opponents should help. When you tack on signs pointing to Stefon Diggs’ return, the continued progression of Cordarrelle Patterson and Adam Thielen, and some lackluster play from the Eagles’ corners thus far, I think Bradford will be able to continue the amazingly efficient start to his Vikings career. The offense has shown improvements every week and hopefully Norv Turner was able to add a couple of effective new wrinkles over the bye.

It won’t always be easy for the Vikings offense, but it should be enough as long as they continue to avoid mistakes. In the end I believe the Vikings defense will once again rule the headlines and dictate the game. Even if it’s just for a day, I’m going to revel in the misery of a quarterback I used to love rooting for.

Sorry, Carson. It’s not you, it’s me.

Prediction

Vikings 23, Eagles 10


And now for the rest of my Week 7 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

PACKERS over Bears

My Survivor Pool pick of the week, for two reasons:

  1. I’m out anyway after Pittsburgh laid an egg in Miami last week; and
  2. Reverse jinxing the Packers.

Aaron Rodgers has the worst adjusted net yards per attempt, completion percentage, and quarterback rating out of all four current NFC North starting quarterbacks, and by quite a bit in each category. I’m not exactly sure what’s wrong with the Packers—I just want it to keep happening.

Giants over RAMS (in London)

Folks in England should be familiar with Odell Beckham’s antics. After all, they watched four seasons of Mario Balotelli in the Premier League. (You’re welcome, all three people that actually understood that analogy.)

Bills over DOLPHINS

Jay Ajayi scoring a bajillion points on everyone’s bench last week, suckering everyone into starting him this week, and then getting 18 total yards on 8 touches is reason #23,480,596 why fantasy football is the worst.

BENGALS over Browns

The 2-4 Bengals against the 0-6 Browns. The 90’s really are back in style.

Redskins over LIONS

I have no idea what to make of either of these teams. So I checked Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings. Washington is 10th; Detroit is 26th. Works for me! Since I have nothing else to add, here’s the Gratuitous Picture of the Week!

(Just kidding. Still not bringing it back, as much as you guys plead for it in the comments every week.)

TITANS over Colts

All AFC South games should be broadcast on ESPNU, Fox Sports 2, or some other deep cable sports channel so I don’t accidentally see them when I’m flipping through games. Speaking of the AFC South and DVOA, did you know that Tennessee is the only team in the division that’s outside of Football Outsiders’ bottom 10 in their rankings? Division-leading Houston is 30th! Thank God the Vikings get four games against them this year.

CHIEFS over Saints

I know I just said that fantasy football is terrible. But is there anything more exciting than checking your fantasy matchups and seeing “vs. NO” next to one of your player’s name? I start rubbing my hands together and get dollar signs in my eyes like I’m Scrooge McDuck.

Raiders over JAGUARS

I have a feeling this game is reeeeally going to make Jacksonville want a do-over of that 2014 draft.

Ravens over JETS

It’s hard to get all the analytics sites to agree on much of anything, but one thing they all seem to agree on is that the Jets are the worst team in football through six weeks. Plus they’re starting Geno Smith this week!

FALCONS over Chargers

San Diego is better than their record, but I don’t think they’ll...interfere...with Atlanta winning at home. (Too soon, Falcons fans?)

Buccaneers over 49ERS

Why does picking the winner of this game feel a lot like voting in the upcoming election?

Patriots over STEELERS

No, Pittsburgh, Rick Spielman will NOT trade you Sam Bradford for four to six weeks. Stop calling him!

Seahawks over CARDINALS

Don’t let Arizona fool you into thinking they’re back just because David Johnson scored a million touchdowns against the Jets and 49ers. They’re still more 2010 Vikings than contender with how Carson Palmer is currently playing.

BRONCOS over Texans

The Brock Osweiler Revenge Game! And he’s going to get beat by his old team led by a quarterback that has 700 times less guaranteed money on his contract! Good times.

(Note: I didn’t make that number up. It’s literally 700 times more.)

Last week: 10-5
Season so far: 55-37