We’re going to start the weekly preview with a quiz. Here is the statistical comparison of two NFL teams from the 2019 season:
|Category||Team A||Team B|
|Category||Team A||Team B|
|Points per game||30.0||11.0|
|Points allowed per game||12.0||18.5|
|Rushing yards per game||198.0||119.0|
|Average offensive expected points added||16.47||-8.37|
|Average overall PFF grade||79.4||63.7|
|Sacks allowed per game||1.33||3.5|
|Average total pressures allowed per game||5.8||21.5|
|Adjusted yards per attempt||11.34||5.78|
|Explosive plays (runs of 10+, passes of 20+) per game||11||6|
Obviously, Team A is superior in every single statistic and it isn’t even close. Team B struggles mightily on offense, especially in the passing game. If Team A and Team B squared off on a neutral field, one would have to assume that Team A would be favored by double digits.
Now here’s the quiz: which teams are they? Are they the Patriots and the Dolphins? The 49ers and the Jets? The Chiefs and the Redskins? Nope. Here’s a huge hint: both teams will be on the field at U.S. Bank Stadium this Sunday.
If you haven’t deciphered which team is which yet, here’s your second huge hint: neither team is the Philadelphia Eagles. That’s right: Team A is the Vikings in their three wins; Team B is the Vikings in their two losses.
Of course, all NFL teams tend to look better in their wins and worse in their losses. The Total DVOA difference listed in the table is extremely stark at first glance; their total DVOA in the wins would put them behind only the Patriots and 49ers while the losses number would put them ahead of only the four winless teams. However, the Vikings currently rank only 10th in highest variance, which means there are nine teams that have been more inconsistent this season. (The most inconsistent: the Raiders. Makes sense. The most consistent: the Dolphins, who have been equally awful every single week.)
That said, the Vikings really have looked like two completely different teams on alternating weeks in 2019. The greatest variance has come from Kirk Cousins and the offense. The passing numbers are especially dissimilar, even for a small sample size. Unsurprisingly, the total pressures allowed per game increases by over 370% as those passing numbers plummet. If the Vikings want to see more of Team A on Sunday, they should focus on reducing the pressure on Cousins.
Protecting Cousins is much easier said than done when it comes to their Week 6 opponents. The Eagles defensive line is going to be an extremely difficult problem to address on Sunday. Last week against the Jets, they racked up an astounding 31 total pressures and ten sacks. Poor Luke Falk was running for his life at Lincoln Financial Field like a fan of an opposing team sitting among a group of drunk Eagles fans in Section 231. Brandon Graham led the way, racking up seven pressures and three sacks on just 40 snaps. This breakdown from Fran Duffy shows how Graham lined up in different places along the defensive line and beat just about every member of the Jets line to make big plays.
Let's take a look at Brandon Graham's 3-sack hat trick against the Jets along with another play that he had a big impact on, the 4th down Pick Six in the first quarter.— Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 7, 2019
All three sacks came from a four-man rush with Graham lined up inside over the guard #FlyEaglesFly #Eagles pic.twitter.com/Hbx5pRCYmZ
Garrett Bradbury and Pat Elflein have had more than their fair share of pass blocking woes this season. Graham had seven pressures and a sack against the Vikings last season; preventing a repeat performance should be a top priority for the Minnesota pass blockers.
Even if the Vikings can slow down Graham, they have another matchup nightmare to deal with in defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. The former 2012 first round pick is still one of the best interior linemen in the game. Cox added six pressures and four quarterback hits of his own against Minnesota last season. He’s second on the team behind Graham and tied for 13th in the NFL with 24 total pressures; Calais Campbell is the only defensive tackle in the league with more. While he didn’t get in on the sack party against the Jets last week, Cox still made a huge impact, especially in the run game. The Jets tried to neutralize him with blockers coming from a variety of angles to get any semblance of a run game going with Le’Veon Bell. It didn’t work.
Establishing the run with Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison will be a lot tougher than it was last week against the Giants. The Eagles have allowed the fewest rushing yards in the NFL this season on only 3.2 yards per carry. They have stuffed 32% of opponents’ runs at or behind the line of scrimmage, also best in the league.
When the opposing defense is stopping one out of every three carries dead in its tracks, Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak will have to be wary of relying too much on the run in early downs. In order to stay out of second and third and long situations, they’ll have to gain chunks of yards through the air. Luckily for the Vikings pass catchers, the back end of the Eagles defense is nowhere near as stout as their front line. The addition of Orlando Scandrick certainly seemed to help out the secondary last week, but the Jets pass catchers aren’t going to be confused with the Greatest Show on Turf anytime soon. It looks like Sidney Jones is set to return after leaving the Green Bay game with a hamstring injury. His fellow cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Avonte Maddox missed last week’s game and sat out of Wednesday’s practice; they’re looking less likely to play. Craig James had to play 56 snaps for the Eagles last week. Yes, that’s the same Craig James that spent the past two Training Camps in Eagan getting torched by Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. You can pass on the Eagles secondary as long as your quarterback is upright.
The Packers had lots of success in their Week 4 matchup by spreading the Eagles defense out and connecting on a lot of quick-hit passes. (It didn’t work so well on those last five passes inside the 5 with the game on the line in the fourth quarter, but we won’t complain about that.)
Although the Packers allowed only one sack and tried to get the ball out quickly, the Eagles still managed to pressure Aaron Rodgers a lot. The Vikings will have to rely on their play action and designed bootlegs to keep the Eagles defense off balance. They got that part of their offense back on track against the Giants with plays like this to the WR3 we’ve all been waiting for, Olabisi Johnson.
When the Vikings do manage to move the ball on Sunday, they’ll need to capitalize on their opportunities. It was great to see Dan Bailey win NFC Special Teams Player of the Week for his perfect performance at MetLife Stadium. However, part of Bailey’s big day was due to the Vikings remaining inefficient in their red zone passing game. Cousins was able to find Thielen for his first two red zone touchdown passes of the season last week, but there were two more opportunities where sacks forced the Vikings to settle for three points. This sack that stifled the opening drive of the game was particularly egregious. Bradbury, Elflein, and Josh Kline allowed a three-man rush to get home while Cousins was looking at the pressure instead of Thielen open across the middle.
Carson Wentz might have his fair share of pressure to look at on Sunday as well. The only teammates with more pressures than Graham and Cox this season? None other than Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen. Both of Hunter’s sacks last Sunday came with the Giants threatening to score. His run defense remains vastly underrated as well. He regularly bulldozes opposing tackles like the bad guys going after the rainforest in Captain Planet; asking any number of tight ends to slow him down is an exercise in futility.
Running the ball could be tough for both teams on Sunday. The Vikings rank second in run defense DVOA. Jordan Howard and Miles Sanders are a solid combo but the Eagles ground game has been rather pedestrian through the first five weeks.
Getting consistent pressure appears to be a taller task than stopping the run for the Minnesota defense. Philadelphia will likely prove to be more of a chore for the Minnesota front four. The Eagles offensive line is more than just a famous nudist colony; they’re a very experienced and cohesive unit. All five of their starting offensive linemen have been with the team since 2016 or earlier. Having that much familiarity in the trenches is incredibly valuable.
Wentz’s line has rarely let him down this season. His pass catchers are another story. The Eagles lead the NFL in dropped passes. DeSean Jackson will probably miss the game on Sunday. Alshon Jeffery has hurt the Vikings in the past, but he doesn’t seem to be all the way back from the calf injury that hampered him earlier in the season. Spelling Nelson Agholor’s last name correctly is usually tougher than covering him. The only consistently reliable target Wentz has had this season is Zach Ertz. The veteran tight end leads the team in targets, receptions, and yards by a wide margin. Ertz has 31 more targets, 18 more receptions, and 212 more yards than Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr. combined. (Sunday might be a good time for the Vikings to get their tight ends more involved in the passing game. After all, there isn’t much tape for the Eagles to study.) Ertz is the go-to guy for the Philadelphia offense, especially in the red zone and on third down.
Stopping Ertz and the Eagles on third down will be crucial. Philadelphia is second in the league in converting third downs. Minnesota’s defense isn’t on the historic pace of the past two seasons, but they still rank in the top ten in stopping third down conversions. Andrew Krammer outlined how Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris helped stifle Evan Engram last week. If Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks can repeat their amazing performances this week, the Vikings defense should be able to get off the field on Sunday.
One thing that doesn’t help on either side of the ball: penalties. According to the aptly named NFL Penalties, the Vikings lead the league in penalty yardage (439) and are second to the Browns in penalty yardage differential (-147). It’s hard to win consistently when you’re losing almost 30 yards per game to your opponents via flags. Discipline has historically been a trademark of Mike Zimmer’s teams since he arrived in Minnesota. The surplus of penalties is perplexing, even to the Head Coach and players.
Penalties aren’t the only setbacks hindering the Vikings, even in their decisive wins. Sam Ekstrom of Zone Coverage detailed how the Vikings’ Week 5 win over the Giants was still fraught with plenty mistakes among all the highlights. They can ill afford to keep making those kinds of errors against stiffer opposition.
Sunday will mark Wentz’s first visit to Minneapolis, which of course is just over 200 miles away from his alma mater, North Dakota State University. As a fellow NDSU alum, I’d like to apologize in advance to the Vikings fans at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday. There will be lots of Bison fans from Fargo proudly wearing their #11 Eagles jerseys, all of whom have been Philly fans only since Wentz was drafted in 2016. I can assure you that it makes even less sense to me as a Bison fan. I mean, the Packers have two former NDSU players on their roster, but you sure as hell won’t see me donning Billy Turner or Darrius Shepherd jerseys.
While I don’t think the bandwagon Eagles fans will have that much of an impact on the crowd, I am extremely worried about how much of an impact the Eagles defensive line will have on the game. Even if the Vikings offensive line is at full strength—Kline missed the Wednesday practice with a foot injury and Dakota Dozier has been forced into action in four straight games—I don’t see them handling the Eagles front four very well. As we detailed in the introduction, Cousins tends to struggle when the offensive line isn’t performing well. When the opponent has a winning record, Cousins really tends to struggle, winning only five of 32 career games in that scenario. Philadelphia is 3-2 and playing well after their rocky start.
As usual, I’m fairly confident that the Vikings defense will be tough on their opponents. But the “Team B” Vikings keep showing up at the worst times against good teams. It pains me to be negative about a home game where they are favored, but I simply haven’t seen enough of the “Team A” Vikings to feel confident that they’ll show on Sunday.
Hopefully I’m wrong about “Team A” or “Team B” and we can all “C” the Vikings at 4-2 heading into Detroit next week.
Eagles 20, Vikings 16
And now for the rest of my Week 6 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
PATRIOTS over Giants
The Giants have already ruled out Saquon Barkley, Evan Engram, and Sterling Shepard for Thursday. So yeah, another walkover for the defending champs. Don’t worry, the Patriots’ schedule actually gets slightly more difficult this season—they won’t be favored by double digits every week! But this week (Giants) and next week (Jets)? Absolutely. The week after that? Probably, with the way that the Browns are playing. There’s a very good chance that the Pats will be 8-0 while only having to sweat out the one game in Buffalo. Incredible.
Panthers over Buccaneers (in London)
Christian McCaffrey is taking on the “running backs don’t matter” crowd all by himself like Jon Snow at the Battle of the Bastards. Carolina has found their identity since dropping that Thursday night game to the Bucs in Week 2. But there is still hope for Bucs fans: these early London games always tend to be weird, and I have picked all five Tampa Bay games incorrectly this season.
RAVENS over Bengals
My survivor pool pick of the week, still alive at 5-0 after the Eagles dispatched the Jets last week. Choosing division games in survivor pools is always risky, but we saw what happened the last time Cincinnati visited a division opponent on that Monday night in Pittsburgh.
BROWNS over Seahawks
This feels like a game where Cleveland throws everything they have at Seattle to keep their season alive. If the Browns lose this one, they might be throwing in the Kitchens sink too.
CHIEFS over Texans
The Colts had an extremely impressive upset of the Chiefs last week. Frank Reich may have given the rest of the league a blueprint for slowing down Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City offense. But do I trust Bill O’Brien to implement said blueprint? No. No I do not.
Redskins over DOLPHINS
Since jumping out to a 17-0 lead in Week 1, the Redskins have been outscored by 95 points en route to an 0-5 record and their coach being fired. They’re still 3.5-point road favorites this week. That’s how bad the Dolphins are.
Saints over JAGUARS
The only thing that could get me to hop off the Gardner Minshew Choo Choo: the Teddy Train. (And that Saints defense, which has done most of the heavy lifting since Drew Brees went down.)
Falcons over CARDINALS
If Atlanta loses this one, it’s probably time to take Dan Quinn’s tenure with the Falcons off of life support.
RAMS over 49ers
The Niners keep showing that they’re a legit team. And yet, I keep picking against them. If they prove me wrong again on Sunday, I promise that I’ll pick them at Washington next week.
Cowboys over JETS
If there was ever a time for a Sam Darnold breakout game, this would easily be the most hilarious. Tony Romo giddily describing his old team getting picked apart by a quarterback that just came back from mono would be high comedy. “I DUNNO JIM, IT LOOKS LIKE THE JETS MIGHT HAVE SOMETHIN’ HERE WITH DARNOLD!!” (It probably won’t happen, but still.)
BRONCOS over Titans
If it wasn’t for that Washington/Miami game that’s on the slate this week, this would be an early candidate for ugliest game of the year. Who in their right mind would want to watch these two offenses for three-plus hours?
CHARGERS over Steelers
Too bad the Sunday night flex scheduling thing hasn’t started yet. I’m sure NBC was expecting a much better matchup for this one.
PACKERS over Lions
Getting this in while I can: when this game kicks off, it will have been 1,017 days since Green Bay last beat Detroit. I think that streak probably ends on Monday, but I certainly wouldn’t mind extending it to at least 1,093 days.
Last week: 9-6
Season so far: 49-28-1