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Vikings at Eagles Preview: Paper Champions

Minnesota and Philadelphia have both failed to live up to expectations in 2018. Which team will get back to their winning ways in Week 5?

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NFL: NFC Championship-Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles
Can the Vikings defense ever return to the form they had before the Eagles destroyed them in the NFC Championship Game this past January?
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

“Thought it looked good on paper.”

Haven’t we all made that statement after something goes much worse than we had planned? For example, that time you thought the makeshift cardboard sled you made out of empty beer cases could totally make it down that flight of stairs. Or that time you were convinced the VIP package the student travel agency was selling you on Spring Break was totally worth it. Or that time you thought going on the cheap vacation was smart because all you had to do was listen to one little presentation about buying a timeshare. Or that time you chose the contractor that was a thousand bucks cheaper because he assured you that everything would get fixed in no time. Or that time you thought bringing both of your young daughters to the zoo while your wife was out of town would make for a fun-filled, drama-free afternoon. Or that time when...

It’s why Robert Burns wrote “To a Mouse” over 230 years ago and it still rings true today. Its most memorable line—“The best-laid plans of mice and men / Go oft awry”—rings true throughout so many walks of life, including professional football.

Regarding Sunday afternoon’s game between the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles, it was supposed to be billed as a rematch between two of the NFL’s very best. The mighty Super Bowl champions poised to defend their title as they made another run at glory. Last year’s conference runners up reloaded with even more talent and looking to avenge the embarrassing loss that ended their 2017 season. On paper, this was an early-season clash between two NFC heavyweights that could have serious playoff seeding implications down the road.

That’s why Chris Berman said his famous phrase ad nauseam throughout the years on NFL Primetime: they don’t play the games on paper. In reality, this Week 5 clash is between two teams left scratching their heads after rough starts to the 2018 season. Instead of marching to repeat division titles in the NFC North and East, the Vikings and Eagles currently find themselves looking up at...[squints]...the Bears and Redskins, respectively. What exactly has gone so wrong to make two of the most loaded rosters in football start the season with a combined record of 3-4-1?

You can point to some changes that have been abrupt for the Eagles, while others have been more subtle. The most obvious difference is the magic carriage that Nick Foles rode all the way to a title last season finally turning back into a pumpkin. Philadelphia’s offense looked abysmal in the preseason and they were fairly lucky to escape the first two games at 1-1 with Foles at the helm. Carson Wentz returned in Week 3 less than ten months after tearing his ACL, squeaking out a home victory over the Colts. That was understandable; Wentz and the offense needed to knock off some rust and get back on the same page.

Explaining away a lot of Philadelphia’s choppy start by pointing to the change at quarterback makes sense, but last week’s loss to the Tennessee Titans was much tougher to comprehend. After grabbing a 17-3 lead halfway through the third quarter, the Eagles let the Titans come all the way back before a late Jake Elliott field goal sent the game to overtime. The Eagles scored first in OT, but allowed three straight fourth down conversions en route to the game-winning touchdown by Corey Davis. Perhaps the Super Bowl hangover is in full effect?

It seems that getting past the high of the first title in franchise history could definitely be part of the answer. But Wentz looked much better last Sunday, accurately spreading the ball all over the field to eight different receivers for 348 yards and two touchdowns. He certainly wasn’t the problem. His supporting cast had some issues though. Having Alshon Jeffery back last week was a huge help, as he snagged eight catches for over 100 yards and a touchdown in Tennessee. (Jeffery didn’t practice on Wednesday but it currently doesn’t sound like he’s at risk of missing out on Sunday.) The rest of the receiving corps has been disappointing this season. No Eagles wide receiver cracks the top 70 in either the Football Outsiders or Pro Football Focus rankings through four weeks. Philadelphia pass catchers have dropped 7.5% of their targets in 2018, including a couple crucial third down drops against the Titans.

Getting more help from his receivers is obviously important. At least Wentz still has one of the most reliable and experienced offensive lines in the NFL in front of him. However, the line isn’t playing up to their 2017 level either. Wentz was sacked four times by the Titans, including a strip sack early in the fourth quarter that the Titans turned into a field goal. While the Eagles still have blockers that Vikings fans would kill for, all five starters currently have a Pro Football Focus grade at least ten points worse than last season. The most notable change has been from All-Pro right tackle Lane Johnson. In 704 pass blocking snaps covering both the regular season and postseason in 2017, Johnson allowed a total of only three sacks and 25 total pressures. In 205 pass blocking snaps in 2018, he has already allowed four sacks and 19 total pressures. Again, I’d take this version of Johnson eleven times out of ten over Rashod Hill, but small regressions like this are happening throughout the Eagles roster.

However, despite not firing on all cylinders, the Eagles offense still has plenty of ways to hurt you. They put up 432 yards against a Titans defense that’s pretty darn good. The triumvirate of Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement, and Wendell Smallwood have run the ball effectively and amassed 531 yards from scrimmage. Human firecracker Darren Sproles could be returning from injury soon. Jeffery has torched the Vikings throughout his career, scoring seven touchdowns while averaging five catches and 76 yards in nine career contests against them. The Eagles have a couple of dangerous tight ends as well. Philadelphia has run 12 personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends, 2 wide receivers) more often than all but one team so far, using the package on a third of their snaps. When you have Zach Ertz and second round pick Dallas Goedert at your disposal, it’s wise to put them on the field together to create mismatches. With how mightily the Vikings have struggled in pass coverage this season, especially to tight ends and over the middle, expect Wentz to target both tight ends often on Sunday afternoon.

The Eagles defense allowed some uncharacteristic huge chunk plays to the Titans and couldn’t get off the field at the most crucial times down the stretch. So what happened to the vaunted Philadelphia defense that dominated in 2017, especially during the conference title game? Robert Mays of The Ringer had an excellent article detailing the “marginal decline” that has occurred throughout the Eagles defense this season. The loss of safety Rodney McLeod to season-ending knee surgery has had ripple effects throughout the defense. Jim Schwartz loves putting dynamic veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins all over the field, similar to how the Vikings use Harrison Smith. McLeod had the speed and range to play center field in Philadelphia’s Cover 3 scheme while Jenkins attacked from various positions. While you could certainly do worse than Corey Graham as a replacement, his skill set is different enough that Schwartz felt the need to change his base coverage.

This amazing breakdown from Benjamin Solak of Bleeding Green Nation is a must-read if you want a good deep dive of how the Eagles defense changed with McLeod out of the lineup. Much of the ire for the pass defense woes has been directed toward Jalen Mills, who has had a rough start to the season. He allowed six catches for 112 yards on nine targets against Tennessee. There has even been talk about changing Mills’ role going forward. But Solak showed how Mills’ counterpart Ronald Darby deserves just as much of the blame. I would expect the Eagles to make some adjustments to their coverage for Sunday’s game; Solak thinks Philadelphia will show more split safety looks rather than the Cover 3 traps they used against the Titans. If they do make that adjustment, it will prevent Jenkins from being in the box as often and possibly free up some space for Minnesota’s anemic running game. Either way, Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, and Kyle Rudolph should have some opportunities to make big plays down field against a secondary that’s still trying to find their identity.

Of course, taking advantage of the Eagles’ defensive deficiencies is easier said than done with an offensive line that has been more feeble than Rick James’ legs after the Murphy brothers stomped him out. The seven players that have taken snaps along the Vikings O-line have given up 81 pressures this season, which is by far the worst in the league. While the back end of Philadelphia’s defense has some question marks, their front line is still a terror. Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Chris Long, and Derek Barnett could easily enjoy the same kind of success they had against the Vikings in January. New additions Haloti Ngata and Michael Bennett will cause plenty of problems as well. (Cox and Barnett both missed practice on Wednesday, which is worth monitoring as we get closer to kickoff.) The Eagles have allowed the fewest rushing yards in the league while the Vikings have gained the fewest yards on the ground thus far. Minnesota is the only team in the NFL that hasn’t scored a rushing touchdown this year. Throw in the fact that Dalvin Cook is still nursing a hamstring injury and you don’t exactly have a recipe for success. Even though Cook has forced 18 missed tackles on 45 touches this season according to Pro Football Focus, he’s still only averaging 2.7 yards per carry thanks to getting little to no help up front.

Some of Minnesota’s pass blocking and rushing volume woes can be attributed to having to pass so damn much. The Vikings have been playing from behind a lot, which means some game situations have dictated that they all but abandon the run. Over the past three games, they have trailed for 136:24 of 190 minutes played--71.8% of the time. They have trailed by double digits for 84:26 (44.4%). The contrast of snaps taken while leading, tied, and trailing through the first four games compared to last season is stunning.

Offensive snaps while leading, tied, and trailing

Year Leading % Tied % Trailing %
Year Leading % Tied % Trailing %
2017 532 50.3 224 21.2 302 28.5
2018 59 21.5 56 20.4 160 58.2

Enormous differences like that mean that the Vikings are passing way too much to sell play action. Kirk Cousins has consistently been one of the best in the league when throwing out of play action throughout his career, yet Minnesota is using it 13% less than they did last season. And play action really does work—just ask the Vikings opponents. Andrew Krammer and Justis Mosqueda both wrote pieces this week on how the Vikings defense has been getting torched by play action this season. The misdirection has neutralized the pass rush and caused confusion in coverage, especially among the Minnesota linebackers. So many players have been caught out of position that it’s hard to discern what coverage they were supposed to play in the first place. How these mistakes are happening on a Mike Zimmer defense with so many talented pieces that should be familiar with each other is beyond me.

Vitriol for the defensive woes was largely directed at Anthony Barr last week. He was the closest defender on three of the Rams’ touchdowns and has been rightfully recognized as one of the most disappointing players of the 2018 season. However, the blame is far from his alone. While pieces of the Eagles defense have taken a step back this season, many of the Vikings defenders have moonwalked straight into mediocrity. Eric Kendricks got a big new contract due in large part to his big improvement in pass coverage; he might actually be doing worse than Barr in that department this year. Mike Hughes had a splashy start to his career but has since been caught making plenty of rookie mistakes in coverage and communication. Mackensie Alexander hasn’t made the third-year leap we were hoping for. Trae Waynes was downright atrocious on a handful of plays against the Rams and doesn’t look like the player that finished last season so strongly. Rhodes have been decidedly much less closed against Xavier this year too. Cornerback was supposed to be one of the most loaded groups on the roster in 2018; no Vikings corners currently crack the top EIGHTY at the position for PFF grades. This defense was first in weighted DVOA last year, brought almost everyone back while adding a couple of key pieces, and now sits at 25th in those same rankings. Arif broke down how badly the defense was out-schemed and out-performed by Sean McVay’s high-octane offense last week; there are quite literally “leaks” everywhere right now. Their precipitous decline has been nothing short of baffling.

Even though there is plenty to dislike about the Vikings’ play and this week’s matchup, the situation is far from hopeless. The Vikings are coming off an extended rest while the Eagles had to play an extra ten minutes last Sunday. Cousins had a fair amount of success against the Eagles in his NFC East days. John DeFilippo is intimately familiar with Philadelphia’s strengths and weaknesses, as he was a member of their staff last season. If the Vikings can get off to a fast start and dictate the flow of the game, they could look like a much different team. Besides, as I stated in my Week 1 preview, we should never read too much into the first month of the NFL calendar. Zimmer himself has explained that this isn’t the time for “woe is me.” The Vikings simply have too much talent to keep playing this poorly for the next twelve games; catching the Eagles now before they truly hit their stride could be a great way to break out of this early season funk. That said, to me it feels like the Eagles are much closer to righting the ship. Unless the Vikings make some drastic improvements on Sunday, there are some big mismatches that Philadelphia should be able to exploit, most notably with their tight ends and defensive line. There is no getting around the fact that Zimmer has been outclassed by the opposing coaching staff in three of the last five games he has coached. (Four of the last six if you include the second half of the Saints playoff game.) I don’t anticipate another humiliating blowout. I do anticipate Eagles fans at the Linc tossing beer cans, mocking the Skol chant, and generally being the miscreants that we have grown to know and loathe over the years. My Twitter mentions will likely be bombarded by all the trolls that I didn’t already block or mute last January. It’s not something I’m looking forward to. But it is something I’m prepared for.

Now go back and read the first letter of each paragraph in this article. Sorry, Eagles fans. You might be the best trolls on paper, but nobody is better at hating on the Vikings than Vikings fans themselves.


Eagles 27, Vikings 17

And now for the rest of my Week 5 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

PATRIOTS over Colts

My Survivor Pool pick of the week, now a less-terrible 2-2 on the season after Jacksonville took care of the Jets last week. New England is getting Julian Edelman back, Josh Gordon is looking like this year’s “of course he goes to the Pats and finally figures it out” player, and their defense looked light years better against Miami last week. Surprise, surprise.

STEELERS over Falcons

Pittsburgh is kind of a mess right now. Atlanta’s beat up defense is an absolute disaster right now. First team to 40 wins?

Titans over BILLS

Is Buffalo going to be the 2001 Panthers of this season—a 1-15 team whose only win came on the road against the Vikings? I wouldn’t completely rule it out.

BENGALS over Dolphins

I have been saying all season that Cincinnati is better than most people thought, yet I picked against them last week. I won’t make that same mistake this week.

Ravens over BROWNS

I almost picked the upset here, but I can’t until Cleveland stops finding new and entertaining ways to avoid winning games.

Packers over LIONS

Green Bay really hasn’t looked all that impressive yet. Which is why it’ll really piss Lions fans off when Aaron Rodgers improves his record against Detroit to 14-3 all time.

CHIEFS over Jaguars

This is my favorite matchup of the week—a great defense against a dynamic offense. I’m a little pissed at Patrick Mahomes though. I’m left handed, and his ridiculous pass in crunch time on Monday night proved that there is literally nothing I can do better than him athletically.

PANTHERS over Giants

Good God is that Giants offense painful to watch. Wasting the talents of Odell Beckham Jr. and Saquon Barkley with the rotting corpse of Eli Manning should be illegal.

CHARGERS over Raiders

New reality show idea: go to a Vegas sports book and follow people that bet on the Chargers money line when they’re heavily favored. Then sit back and watch them experience the full gamut of human emotion as the Chargers do everything in their power to piss it away. It’s television gold!

Rams over SEAHAWKS

What Earl Thomas really meant by his middle finger to his own sideline last Sunday: “you guys are completely f***ed without me against that Rams offense next week.”

49ERS over Cardinals

How bad is Arizona this year? They’re “C.J. Beathard is somehow a 4.5-point favorite” bad.

Cowboys over TEXANS

I have no clue which team to pick in this game. However, I do know that the losing coach of this game will skyrocket to the top of the “first coach fired” rankings!

SAINTS over Redskins

We already have our second Adrian Peterson Revenge Game of the year! Unfortunately for him, New Orleans is an actual NFL football team. Arizona isn’t.

Last week: 9-6
Season so far: 36-25-2