The biggest challenge for the Vikings in the NFC Championship will be scoring against a stout Eagles defense. To that end, the biggest obstacle is overcoming a dominant Eagles defensive line, which not only generates more pressures than any other defensive line in the league, but is also excellent against the run.
The Vikings have a good quarterback who can deliver the ball, extend plays at times, and can read defenses reasonably well. The Vikings also have a very capable receiver corps that can win their share of the battles against the Eagles secondary, which avoids press-man coverage and uses primarily off-man coverage with single or two-deep safeties.
But where the Vikings are at a disadvantage, is their offensive line vs. the Eagles defensive front. Here is where Pat Shurmur and the Vikings need to game plan to minimize the Eagles advantage, allowing Case Keenum to deliver the ball effectively to a talented group of skill players on offense.
THE GIANTS HAD THE BEST GAME PLAN AGAINST THE EAGLES’ DEFENSE
Looking through tape of Eagles games this season, one somewhat surprising team had a good deal of success moving the ball effectively and scoring against the Eagles defense: The New York Football Giants. Yes, the 3-13 Giants, with the 31st ranked offense in points, and 21st in yards was somehow able to average 460 yards and 26.5 points per game in their two match-ups against the Eagles this season. And had the Giants not had one of the worst defenses in the league this year, they might have won those games. But even with an offensive line worse than the Vikings, depleted receiver corps, and not much of a running game, they were able to drive and score effectively against the Eagles’ stout defense- and defensive line.
So how did they do it?
They took advantage of the Eagles’ soft coverage by throwing a ton of short passes. Eli Manning had 47 and 57 pass attempts in the two games. But to illustrate, here is a video of the Giants first drive in their week 15 match-up:
The drive was pretty straight-forward. Short slants and crossing routes against off-man coverage and a single-high safety. Most of these were 5-10 yard completions. And then a little stutter-move by a WR, causing the CB (Darby) to bite after so many short slant routes, leading to a deeper fade. From there the Giants mixed in some runs and scored. The Giants had a second drive, still in the first quarter, that was pretty much the exact same thing- leading to another touchdown.
This was the second match-up between the division rivals, and the Giants had done the same thing the first game too, so this was no surprise to the Eagles defense. The Giants had lost Odell Beckham and one other receiver by this game, didn’t have much of a running game, their offensive line was mediocre, and Eli Manning wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire this season. But a methodical drive of short, high-percentage passing, with Manning in shotgun, worked very well. Manning got the ball out quick, rendering the Eagles’ pass rush ineffective, and took advantage of the soft, off-man coverage the Eagles CBs play regularly. That led them to anticipate the short route, and eventually get fooled for a deeper completion.
ATLANTA USED THE SAME FORMULA, BUT GOT AWAY FROM IT
In the Divisional Round, Atlanta started the game the same way and drove to the red zone before suffering a drop on a poor route that led to a field goal. But Atlanta was successful with the short slants and in-routes, and also with some pitches leading to some nice runs outside.
But then Atlanta would get away from that formula at times, and throw a wide receiver screen, without blocking, which doesn’t work as well against off-coverage, as the Eagles’ CBs were good at coming up to make the tackle before the receiver had a chance to do much. Having Matt Ryan under-center wasn’t always as effective, and sometimes Ryan would go for the deeper route when it wasn’t really there (targeting Julio Jones hoping he’ll make a play), which got them into a hole and stalled the drive.
Still, the Falcons managed to drive the field at the end of the game, and had a 1st and goal at the Eagles 9-yard line. But did they run any short slants or in-routes or pitches that had worked so well? Once- successfully - to the Eagles 2-yard line. Here’s what they did:
On first down, had Julio Jones ran a slant route instead of a back shoulder fade, the Falcons would have likely scored and won the game. On second down, the Falcons called a poorly executed shovel pass into the heart of the Eagles defensive front. On third down, they finally went with the slant route- which got them to the 2 yard line. Then on 4th and 2, a poorly executed roll-out and toss-up to Jones. That poor play-calling cost them the game.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK AGAINST THE EAGLES DEFENSE
Looking at game film, there are a few plays that I noticed did not work particularly well against the Eagles defense:
- Deep balls. It was uncommon for the Eagles secondary to get beat over the top. They’d give up big passing plays on occasion, but almost always on underneath routes that turned into big plays due to poor tackling. They did get beat on occasion on double-moves though, or got hit with a pass interference penalty. I expect the Vikings will try to fool the Eagles’ DBs with double moves at times, which could lead to a successful deep ball. The key will be having the Vikings offensive line give Keenum the time to make the throw.
- Play-action. Usually play-action resulted in a longer time to get the ball out- and pressure from the Eagles defensive front. It also took away the short, quick-hitting routes that the Eagles CBs tend to give-away in off-coverage. The Vikings have run a lot of play-action in the past, so hopefully they’ll adjust in their game plan against the Eagles.
- Roll-outs. While they give a QB more time against an excellent Eagles pass-rush, they really count on receivers getting open deeper, which the Eagles’ coverage scheme is designed to prevent. Would be most effective with plenty of field to work with, in conjunction with a double move.
- Open wide receiver screens. Quick throws outside to a single receiver on the line of scrimmage usually were stopped for little or no gain, as the CBs in off-coverage were quick to close in and made the tackle. Sometimes there would be a missed tackle that would lead to a bigger gain, but that wasn’t common. The Vikings usually don’t run a lot of these, and hopefully they won’t on Sunday either.
- Slow developing runs. When backs pause in the backfield, or try to bounce outside, it often leads to a loss.
- Double-TE or unbalanced lines. In the plays I noticed, those alignments didn’t seem to make much difference in the run game. Too many Eagles defenders flow to the ball. The best runs were generally quick-hitters where the back was able to get through a fast-closing hole quickly, make a cut and get up-field fast.
BEATING THE EAGLES RUN DEFENSE
In general, the Eagles defense has been very tough against the run, which in turn has led teams to avoid running against them. Probably for good reason, as they tend to give-up the short throws much easier.
But looking at game film against the Eagles defense this season, a few things stand out as being more effective running the ball:
- Run to the left- away from Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham. The Vikings have had good success on the left side as well.
- Pitches outside to the left have also been effective at times against the Eagles. The Vikings ran one against the Saints with Jerick McKinnon for their first TD last Sunday. That play could work against the Eagles as well.
- Runs tend to be more successful when the back just hits the hole, rather than waiting for something to open up- it usually closes in instead.
- More elusive backs tend to do better against the Eagles second- and third-tier defenders- if they can get through the first wall.
- Don’t make a habit of running on first down. The Eagles defensive front is dialed into the run on early downs- seemingly regardless of other factors- and often have seven or eight in the box.
- I can imagine Latavius Murray having more success grinding a one- or two-yard run into three or four when there’s not much of a hole- something I expect will happen most of the time. However, I could also see Jerick McKinnon being able to get more out of a small opening if he hits it fast. Last year against the Eagles defense, with a worse offensive line, the Vikings managed to average 4 yards a carry on 23 carries between Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon.
The Eagles defense under Jim Schwartz seems to have this general approach:
- Front seven focused on stopping the run first every down, often with linebackers lined up close behind the front four- strong safety too.
- Secondary plays off-coverage, keep receivers in front, don’t get beat deep.
Overall the idea is that by stopping the run, but allowing the short passes (because they don’t have corners good or big enough to play press-man well) they can minimize the run and deep pass. If a team runs once, and passes twice between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd down, and they can stop the run for little gain and limit passes to 4 - 7 yards, eventually there will be an in-completion that stalls the drive. Most QBs average around 65-70% completion rates, so that stands to reason. The same idea applies if the run twice and pass once too.
And, over the course of a game, if an offensive line spends most of the day pass blocking, they’ll eventually wear down as well- while the defensive line can rotate players to keep them fresh. That will lead to more pressure late in games and fewer scoring drives.
The key to defeating that approach is to first take advantage of the short passing opportunities, and then get yards-after-the-catch (YAC). So, instead of getting 4-7 yards a reception, you get 7-11, allowing you to have one bad play and still move the chains. Then, every once in a while, force a missed tackle or blown coverage that leads to a big play. Playing smart is also key, as negative plays like sacks and penalties will be more difficult to overcome.
The Eagles defense, as good as it is, will give up some big plays:
From a player standpoint, while the Vikings offensive line is at a disadvantage against this stout Eagles defensive front, having an accurate quarterback in Case Keenum (4th most accurate QB this year, according to PFF), along with good route running, YAC-getting receivers in Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, and Jarius Wright, is a good match-up for the Eagles’ style of pass coverage. I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of those guys- and Jerick McKinnon too- shake loose from the Eagles secondary for a big play.
Here are some plays the Vikings have executed this season that could work well against the Eagles as well:
Those were mostly big plays, but most of them were also big plays that came out of well executed shorter passes or runs, and play-makers making plays. It doesn’t take many of those to get to 20+ points. But equally important is to avoid the negative plays, throw away the ball when the pass isn’t there, keep two hands on the ball at the end of runs or catches. Better to take what this defense gives you, rather than be overly aggressive- where this defense can make you pay. The Vikings defense should allow the offense to be patient, and with some workmanlike drives can hopefully avoid the need for any miracles at the end.
How many points will the Vikings offense score against the Eagles on Sunday?
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