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Vikings vs. Eagles: NFC Championship Preview

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NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Here we are. The NFC Championship game. One game, one win away from a Super Bowl home game, and the first Vikings trip to the Super Bowl in 41 years. It’s a road game on the one hand, but on the other, the Eagles don’t look to be nearly the offensive team the Saints were with Nick Foles at QB, and perhaps only marginally better defensively.

The Vikings are early 3.5 point favorites on the road (they were 4 point favorites at home against the Saints).

So let’s take a look at recent track records and match-ups for both teams.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

Offensively, you have to discount most of the Eagles season this year, as Carson Wentz quarterbacked them to those results for the first 14 games. Since Wentz went down with an ACL injury, the Eagles offense is a different animal. Nick Foles replaced Wentz at QB, and just isn’t the dynamic presence Wentz had been for the Eagles, and it shows.

Foles has really only started three games for the Eagles since Wentz went down- against the Giants, Raiders, and Falcons (he didn’t play much week 17 against the Cowboys). The Giants and Raiders games, like the Vikings last few regular season games, are not good ones to use as they were playing against teams already dead when it came to the post-season, and in the case of both the Giants and Raiders, poor defenses too.

That leaves the Falcons game in the Divisional Round. In that game, the Eagles employed Foles firmly as a game manager, handing the ball off on 32 of the Eagles’ 67 offensive plays, and throwing mainly short routes and dump-offs on passing plays. Foles attempted only 3 passes over 15 yards in the air against the Falcons. He did not complete any of them. His average depth of target (aDot) was 5.2 yards.

For the season, Foles has attempted 21 passes over 15 yards. He’s completed 4 of them (19%), with one interception and no touchdowns. That’s just plain bad.

Nick Foles’ directional passer ratings for the season.
Sharp Football Stats

For comparison, here are the passer ratings the Vikings defense has allowed this season:

Vikings defense allowed directional passer ratings this season
Sharp Football Stats

The light green passer rating circles on the charts represent slightly better than average passer rating, while the dark green represent much better than average passer rating. The dark red circles represent much worse than average passer rating. The 106 rating the Vikings defense has on deep right routes came largely in the earlier part of the season, when Trae Waynes was not as good in coverage as he has been the last half of the season.

But overall, just over 83% of Foles’ pass attempts, and 95% of his completions, were under 15 yards in the air.

Against the Falcons, Foles threw for 246 yards. Half of those yards came from yards-after-the-catch, or YAC.

All of this suggests the Vikings may go with a lot of Cover-1 shells on defense, putting Harrison Smith in the box to help in both run defense, short-intermediate coverage assignments, and blitzes - helping to minimize the Eagles’ offense inside 10 - 15 yards from the line of scrimmage, and forcing Foles to beat them with what he does worst- the deep ball.

In terms of the Eagles ground game, they have a trio of backs- Jay Ajayi, LaGarrette Blount, and mainly 3rd down back Corey Clement. Together they had 96 yards on 32 attempts against the Falcons, averaging an even 3 yards a carry, which isn’t much against the Falcons 19th ranked run defense in yards per attempt. The Vikings defense ranks 5th.

Beyond that, and getting back to the passing game, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vikings had All-Pro CB Xavier Rhodes shadow Alshon Jeffrey most of the game, helping to minimize his production.

In terms of the defensive front, the Vikings will need to exploit the weakness on the left side of the Eagles offensive line. The Eagles’ starting LT Jason Peters went down several weeks ago, and his replacement, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, has not done well in either run blocking or pass protection, according to PFF. Pro-Bowler Everson Griffen will need to exploit that match-up and get pressure on Foles. They may try to chip him with a back or TE, but that would take away an important target for Foles if they do. Next to him, Stefen Wisniewski has also not fared so well in pass protection, although he has done reasonably well as a run blocker, according to PFF.

The other side of the Eagles offensive line is pretty much All-Pro at every spot, starting with All-Pro center Jason Kelce, Pro Bowl RG Brandon Brooks, and All-Pro RT Lane Johnson. It will be interesting to see how the Vikings choose to line-up against the Eagles lob-sided OL, in terms of talent and performance level. It may be that having Tom Johnson play over Brandon Brooks on running downs makes the most sense, leaving big Linval Joseph to be more productive against Kelce and Wisniewski, and possibly switching Hunter and Griffen around on occasion, but we’ll see. Hopefully Shamar Stephen will be healthy and along with Brian Robison can rotate to help keep the defensive line fresh.

Overall, the Vikings defensive front is at least as good as the Falcons interior, and better on the edges. And in terms of yards per rushing attempt allowed, significantly better at 5th best in the league- one spot above the Eagles’ defensive front.

Bottom line, it’s hard to see either the Eagles’ passing game or running game gaining much traction against the Vikings’ #1 ranked defense this season. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Vikings use a lot of pre-snap movement to confuse Foles and make the Eagles’ job up-front a little more difficult to execute, and which could also lead to some mistakes that could prove costly. I would certainly expect the Vikings to test both Ajayi’s and Blount’s ball security, and give Foles some disguised blitz packages too.

Against the Falcons, the Eagles went 1-3 (33%) in the red zone, and 6-13 (46%) on 3rd down. The Falcons defense is ranked 5th in the red zone and 17th on 3rd down. The Vikings defense is ranked 3rd and 1st, respectively, allowing only 40% conversion in the red zone and a stifling 25% on 3rd down. Given the Eagles’ performance against the Falcons, I would expect the Vikings percentages to hold, leading to few scoring opportunities absent turnovers or some big special teams play.

But defensively, the Vikings haven’t given up many big plays, and against teams with mediocre QBs, like the Bears, Packers, Browns, and Bengals, they’ve only given up an average of 10 points a game. They’ve also been remarkably consistent. The only real outlier was the Carolina game, the last of three straight games on the road against good teams. The Vikings defense gave up two big runs that resulted in 14 points which, combined with 3 turnovers and a few dropped passes, proved too much to overcome.

It’s just really, really hard to see the Eagles scoring more points than they did against Atlanta, who’s defense isn’t as good as the Vikings’. Maybe the cold or grass will be an issue? It wasn’t on the road in Green Bay a few weeks ago- against an offense that used to be good before they lost their MVP-caliber starting quarterback.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Offensively, the Vikings will have their work cut out for them against the Eagles defense, which is ranked 4th overall in terms of both yards and points allowed. And just like the Vikings defense, they don’t have any glaring weaknesses at any position. And they do have a lot of very good players, and at every level. They are very good on third down (3rd overall) and against both pass and run. Their one weakness, however, is in the red zone, where they’re only ranked 20th overall, allowing opponents to convert touchdowns 55% of the time.

It’s interesting that against the Eagles defense, opposing offenses have passed the 2nd most frequently, and run the least frequently. A good part of that may result from the Eagles playing with the lead, but also a relative assessment of their defensive strength.

For the Vikings, just how productive they will be may come down to how well their offensive line can hold up against their defensive front. My guess is they will be aided in that regard by Case Keenum’s mobility and elusiveness in the pocket, allowing him to extend plays at times.

One of the key situational areas when the Vikings have the ball will be on 3rd down, as always. The Vikings offense is currently the best in the league on 3rd down (they moved ahead of Atlanta & Pittsburgh including playoffs) converting 44.64% of them. The Eagles are third best in preventing them, allowing only a 32.11% conversion rate. That will be a key battle throughout the game, and one the Vikings should be able to win with adequate OL play. And by adequate I mean about the same as against the Saints- which was not outstanding by any means.

But assuming the Vikings make their fair share of 3rd down conversions, that will lead to some red zone opportunities. Here is where the Vikings offense has to deliver. The Vikings average a 58% conversion rate in the red zone, and the Eagles allow a 55% conversion rate. If the Vikings can convert at least half of their red zone opportunities, and get field goals on the missed ones, that’s probably 20 points right there. That’s a tall order for the Eagles’ Nick Foles-led offense to match against the #1 defense in the league. And if the Vikings manage a big play outside the red-zone, so much the better.

In terms of match-ups, the Eagles CBs have typically played sides, with Ronald Darby on the right, Jalen Mills on the left, and Patrick Robinson in the slot. I suspect the Vikings will match Stefon Diggs on Mills, and Thielen on Darby in 2 WR sets, with Robinson (their highest rated CB by PFF) coming in to cover Thielen on 3WR sets.

Mills is their worst-rated CB by PFF (ranked 67th), is 6’ 191lbs and ran a 4.61” 40. He was a 7th round pick in 2016. He was targeted 21 times against Odell Beckham early in the season, allowing him 15 receptions- but most for under 10 yards.

Ronald Darby will likely play off-coverage on whomever he lines up against, as that is his strong-suit. He’s only 5’ 11”, 193lbs, so more like a slot CB playing outside. PFF wrote after week 16 that Darby has allowed just a 34.5 passer rating when not playing press coverage. But that also opens him up to quick slant routes, where PFF also said he’s allowed 5 catches for 103 yards and a TD- and a 153.3 passer rating. He’s also given up 1.59 yards per route run, which ranks 111th of 120 qualifying CBs, according to PFF.

From these stats, you can see that the Eagles play a lot of off-man coverage, probably a fair amount of cover-2 shell, and basically allow opposing offenses to dink-and-dunk them all day. That also jives with why opposing offenses pass so much against them- and also why they’re not as good in the red zone- they don’t play press-man well.

The key to playing that way, is being able to limit yards-after-catch, or YAC. But pretty much every Vikings receiver averages 4-5 yards of YAC per reception- and Jerick McKinnon averages just over 8.

The other thing that strikes me about this style of coverage is how to beat it. The first thing that comes to mind is to use the Vikings big bodied receivers against the Eagles’ smaller CBs. But on second thought, it seems like the Eagles DBs have had more trouble with the quicker, shiftier receivers - that get YAC. The Giants receiver Sterling Shepard (5’10”, 193lbs) toasted the Eagles DBs in both games this season- over 130 yards receiving in each game. Keenan Allen- a good slant route runner- had 130 yards on 4 short passes against the Eagles. 5’10”, 156lbs JJ Nelson had 61 yards on 3 short passes. Odell Beckham had 15 mostly 5-10 receptions against the Eagles in one game- simply because they gave them away in off- coverage.

Here are some clips of short passes that turned into big plays against the Eagles this year, and the slants and out routes the Eagles DBs tend to give away playing off-coverage- featuring the receivers listed.

Looking at those plays, it reminds me of the type of plays Thielen, Diggs and Jarius Wright have made all season.

Given that track record this season, it may make some sense to play small ball with the Eagles. Line up Jarius Wright instead of Laquon Treadwell, along with Thielen and Diggs. Have them route slants and in-routes all day. Have one of them run a double moves or sluggo each play, hoping to get loose deep. Target McKinnon out of the backfield, and Rudolph on out-routes. As good as the Eagles’ defensive front is against the run, their CBs are not. Playing small ball with short routes also makes it difficult for the Eagles to blitz effectively.

Another thing Shurmur could do is to use bunch formations. Put Treadwell and Floyd out wide with Rudolph on that side too, Thielen on the back side and run a wheel route to the strong side with McKinnon.

Looking at the passer ratings the Eagles’ defense has allowed this season, and by down, it makes some sense to pass on early downs, when they’re more focused on the run.

Eagles’ defense allowed directional passer ratings, overall and by down.
Sharp Football Stats

By contrast, here is Case Keenum’s directional passer ratings this season:

Case Keenum directional passer ratings this season
Sharp Football Stats

In the run game, run away from Cox and Graham, behind Reiff and Remmers on the left side. The Eagles LBs on that side are not as good against the run either. I wouldn’t expect tremendous success running the ball, primarily with Murray, but if he can manage close to 4 yards a carry- which is what he’s averaged, and the Eagles’ defense has allowed- it should be enough. Not sure if Shurmur will go with an unbalanced line against the Eagles, but that has been effective in getting more out of the running game at times against stouter defensive fronts.

Bottom Line

The Vikings and Eagles both have top defenses, so scoring will be at a premium. The Vikings are a little better on defense in just about every respect, and easily the best defense the Eagles have faced all season.

Offensively for the Eagles, everything changed after Wentz went down. They had a top offense in scoring and yards. But over the past three games, their average in both yards and points rank 30th in the league. They’ve converted only 23.68% of their 3rd downs, and now will be going up against the best defense in decades on third down- allowing only 25.1% of third downs to be converted- and less than 20% over the past three games.

In the red zone over the past three games, the Eagles have converted only 33.33% of their opportunities, and have averaged only 2 of those per game.

Offensively for the Vikings, things have been more consistent. Over the past 3 games, they’ve averaged 22.6 points a game, which is near, but a point or so below, their season average. They’ve converted 66.6% of their red zone opportunities, and have averaged 3 of those per game.

On third down, the Vikings have converted just over 42% of their opportunities the last three games, down 2% from their league-leading 44.64% for the regular season. The Eagles have allowed just over a 29% conversion rate on 3rd down the past 3 games, near their season average of just over 32%.

When it comes to turnover margin, over the past three games the Vikings are averaging +1 (meaning they forced one more turnover than their opponents) per game, while the Eagles are even - 0 turnover margin. For the season, the Vikings are +0.4, and the Eagles +0.5.

Looking at all these key stats, if you split the difference between what each team has averaged and allowed, the Vikings win. Probably by 10 points. But that’s not how it works.

At the end of the day it’s all about execution, making plays, and- as Mike Zimmer likes to say- playing tough, physical, smart football. The Vikings have been fairly consistent on both sides of the ball this season, and at the end of the day I think have more play-makers on both sides of the ball, and a better one at QB, that will make the difference on Sunday in Philadelphia.

Poll

The Vikings are 3.5 point favorites in the NFC Championship game. How will they fare?

This poll is closed

  • 66%
    Win and cover the spread
    (2648 votes)
  • 13%
    Win, but don’t cover
    (553 votes)
  • 19%
    Lose
    (762 votes)
3963 votes total Vote Now