I did a piece a couple days ago on how to beat the Eagles defense, which is clearly the more difficult task for the Vikings this Sunday in Philadelphia, but let’s not neglect some thoughts on how the Vikings may press their advantage over a Nick Foles-led Eagles offense.
And if you haven’t already read this article on the Vikings defense, it’s well worth the time.
WHAT THE EAGLES MAY DO OFFENSIVELY
I suspect that the Eagles were happy with their offensive game plan against the Falcons, which made things a little easier for Foles, mixing in RPO (Run-Pass Option) plays allowing Foles to read a defender and based on whether he plays run or coverage, option to the opposite.
Beyond that, I expect the Eagles will focus on running the ball and the short pass game, as Foles’ success throwing downfield has been remarkably poor since taking over for Carson Wentz. Having said that, I expect Foles to take some deep shots down the field at times, if only to try to keep the Vikings defense a little off-balance. The past couple games the Eagles tried taking a deep shot in their first series, drawing a DPI on one occasion. But while I’m sure they hope to connect on those plays, I think they call them to give defensive secondaries something to think about, and hopefully open them up more for the short passing game.
This game plan resembles what the Packers did in Green Bay last month with Brett Hundley at QB.
The Packers also mixed in some RPOs and took some deep shots, but mainly focused on running the ball and short passes to minimize potential mistakes, and making reads easier.
Foles and Hundley have shown similar limitations, mainly that they are both inaccurate with their deep throws, but can make the shorter to intermediate throws if they have a clean pocket. Both have some mobility, but Foles isn’t going to take off and run like Hundley has done at times. Foles is more risk averse than Hundley has shown, and depends mostly on quick timing patterns that don’t require a lot of difficult reads. But both QBs tend to have their limitations exposed the longer they hold the ball. When that happens, they tend to lose their clean pocket, and often have to make more difficult throws that test their comfort level.
Both the Eagles and Packers have a respectable group of receivers- Ertz, Agholor and Jeffrey for the Eagles, Nelson, Cobb and Adams for the Packers. Both have offensive lines that can pass protect well. But in both cases, after their star QB went down, offensive production plummeted. Going from near the top, to near the bottom of the league.
But what the Vikings may do, as they’ve done in the past against similar quarterbacks, is to make their reads more difficult by disguising what they’re doing pre-snap, showing blitz, but then not, or showing coverage but then blitz, and moving around to confuse Foles into either holding the ball longer and/or making a mistake.
One thing I noticed watching video of Foles’ recent games, is that he looks where he’s going to throw right before the snap, particularly in shotgun. Just about every time he sneaks a peek toward where he wants to go with the ball, and most often that’s where he goes. When he didn’t throw that way, it was because of good coverage, and he often quickly scanned and made a hurried throw to his second read- at least of few of which were turnover-worthy throws- such as these two on back-to-back plays against the Raiders:
Raiders’ safety Reggie Nelson keyed in on Foles, and with some pre-snap movement was able to make a play on the ball both times. The first one should have been an easy pick-6, but Nelson dropped the ball that hit him right in the hands.
Harrison Smith has been successful making these types of plays all year, and Eric Kendricks also had a nice pick-6 disguising his pre-snap intentions too:
Nick Foles hasn’t faced a defense yet this season that has shown a lot of pre-snap movement, so this aspect of the Vikings defensive scheme could lead to some mistakes. We’ll see. It certainly increases the degree of difficulty for a back-up quarterback in a big game where his level of play will be crucial.
The Vikings have not made a secret that they intend to focus on stopping the run, and make Nick Foles deliver for the Eagles if they’re to win the game.
Key Situational Trends
The Eagles under Nick Foles have not been good on third down over the past few games. In fact they’ve converted only 23% of them against teams in the bottom half of the league in 3rd down conversion rates allowed.
The Vikings defense will easily be the best on third down Foles has faced all year, as Foles has yet to face a defense ranked in the top half of the league on third down, and the Vikings this season have allowed the lowest conversion rate in decades. Here’s a good piece from PFF on how they’ve managed to do it.
In the red zone, the Eagles went 1/3 in the red zone against Atlanta, which is what they’ve averaged the past few games. Combined with averaging only 2 trips to the red zone per game over the past few, that’s a difficult recipe for scoring many points.
EAGLES GROUND GAME
The other thing that’s happened since Nick Foles took over at quarterback is the Eagles ground game has become less productive. Presumably with less of a threat at quarterback (both passing and running), opposing defenses have been able to focus more on stopping the run. Wentz also accounted for 23 rushing yards a game for the Eagles before he went down. But also all the Eagles’ RBs have seen a decline in rushing numbers since Wentz went down. For the season, the Eagles had averaged 130 yards a game on the ground. But over the last three games, that average is down to a paltry 81 yards- nearly a 40% decline from the season average. That’s also roughly what the Vikings defense has been allowing per game this season, and over the past 3 games. On a per attempt basis, the Vikings defense have improved over their season average recently, allowing only 3.5 yard per attempt over the past 3 games, compared to their 3.7 average for the season.
Undoubtedly the Vikings defense, which has been 2nd in the league in yards allowed, and 5th in yards per attempt, will focus on making sure the Eagles ground game doesn’t make things easier for Mr. Foles.
The Eagles have a tandem of power backs Jay Ajayi and LaGarrette Blount, and 3rd down back Corey Clement. Ajayi has been getting most of the carries- he had 60% of them last week against Atlanta. But ball security can be an issue recently. Ajayi lost a fumble last week, and Blount had one too, but recovered it.
The Vikings defense has a number of clear advantages over Nick Foles and the Eagles offense. Whether run, pass, 3rd down or red zone, the Vikings are at or near the best in the league defensively, while the Eagles under Foles have been near the bottom of the league rankings in each of those key metrics.
But in terms of playing complimentary football, the Vikings defense needs to press that advantage and not just sit on it. Nothing erases home field advantage more than a struggling home team offense. Getting more three-and-outs to improve field position for the offense, and generating some turnovers against a relatively poor quarterback are two key ways the Vikings defense can not only stop the Eagles offense, but also help their own score points and win the game.
How many points will the Eagles offense score on Sunday?
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