NFC Championship Game: A Look at Minnesota’s Defense, Part 2

Photo Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

This is the final installment of our Minnesota Vikings breakdown before Sunday’s big game.

If you haven’t already read the first three parts of the series, check out Kevin Kinkead’s breakdowns of the Vikings offense and special teams:

NFC Championship Game: A Look at Minnesota’s Offense

NFC Championship Game: A Look at Minnesota’s Special Teams

Yesterday, I highlighted what makes the Vikings defense so formidable:

NFC Championship Game: A Look at Minnesota’s Defense, Part 1

Today, I’ll break down a few ways to attack it.

Despite what you’ve heard throughout the week, and the uneasiness in the pit of your stomach about the idea of Nick Foles matching up with the Vikings defense (I know I feel it), they can be beaten.

To have any chance to win this game, though, the Eagles’ running game will have to be able to get off the ground. It doesn’t have to dominate, but will need to be efficient enough to keep Foles and crew out of too many third and long situations versus the best 3rd down defense in NFL history.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign for Eagles fans is the home and road splits of Minnesota’s rushing defense. Take a look at the disparity between the rushing yards allowed per game by the Vikings at home vs. away:

 

That’s a difference of 54.3 yards per game, the second largest difference in the league (Miami holds the crown in this category). If you’re thinking that the quality of the home and away opponents is the biggest driver of these splits, that is not exactly the case either.

Another straw in the Eagles’ cap is the performance of their running game in last season’s matchup with Minnesota. The circumstances were vastly different, but the personnel on both sides was largely the same. The Vikings came into that matchup with a 5-0 record and the defense, to that point, had been playing just as well as they are now.

On the day, if we exclude scrambles by Carson Wentz, the Eagles managed to churn out 95 yards on 21 carries, an average of 4.5 yards per carry. Not what we’d call a dominant performance by any means, but I’d bet good money that Doug Pederson would gladly accept the same performance this week.

This is all good news for the Eagles, because the Vikings’ defense does have a few weaknesses, but nothing that can really tilt the game if they can’t get their basic concepts working. Last week, the Eagles had a sustainable advantage over the Falcons’ defense – size. The Falcons probably had them beat in the speed department, but they knew they couldn’t out-muscle them up front and wear them down. The Eagles built their entire game plan around that advantage.

In matching up with Minnesota, there may be a few opportunities to take advantage of, but they serve more as constraints. In other words, there are matchups or concepts that the Eagles can use to keep the Vikings’ defense honest and make them think twice before attacking so quickly.

So, what are they?

 

Misdirection meltdowns

In my breakdown of the Vikings’ defense, I mentioned their overall team speed as one of their major strengths. Linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are very quick to diagnose the play and are really fast to the ball.

While this is certainly an advantage, it can also work against them. In breaking this defense down, one of the first things I noticed was their susceptibility to misdirection. All types of misdirection.

In the first example, from the 2016 matchup in Philadelphia, the Eagles put three tight ends on the field and get in a run look, which forces Minnesota to put eight men in the box. The Eagles run a simple bootleg off of a zone run. Watch how hard the entire defense bites on the run:

The next few plays come from the Vikings’ divisional round playoff matchup with the Saints.

On the first one, Drew Brees fakes a toss sweep to Mark Ingram and then hands the ball off to Alvin Kamara on a jet sweep in the other direction. Watch the entire front seven commit to Ingram. Kendricks still almost makes the play on the sideline, which speaks to his athleticism, but the misdirection was just enough to set up the play:

The next two plays are very similar, except this time, the Saints use a misdirection element to assist in the passing game. Brees again gets the linebackers to commit with a fake toss sweep, but then turns and throws a tunnel screen to Ted Ginn Jr. The play doesn’t go for a big gain, but the fake toss created just enough time for the Saints’ right guard to climb to the second level and seal Kendricks inside.

The last example is my favorite one.

This time the Saints use the fake toss down at the goal line to open up a throwing lane to Michael Thomas for an easy touchdown. Watch the Vikings’ single high safety take two or three steps down towards the run which created more than enough for Brees:

Other ways the Eagles could look to beat the Vikings with misdirection include tight end or running back screens off of the backside of a play or run/pass options to take advantage of the aggressiveness of the linebackers. Luckily, misdirection has been one of the staple elements of this Eagles offense all season. Expect to see various forms of it on Sunday.

 

Deep crossing patterns

One thing that jumped out immediately while watching the Vikings-Saints matchup was the difficulty that Minnesota’s corners had carrying the Saints receivers across the field. The Saints were able to score two touchdowns (although one was called back) on the same exact concept where Thomas and Ginn both ran deep crossing patterns. Watch the separation both are able to get on cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes:

Both Viking cornerbacks are very talented. Both are big, physically gifted players who can lock up receivers in man coverage on the outside, particularly Xavier Rhodes. But, if you make them play in space and force them to open up their hips and run across the field, they can be beaten.

 

Personnel matchups

One clear advantage that the Eagles should look to exploit is the matchup between Nelson Agholor and either Terence Newman or Mackenzie Alexander. Aside from this obvious one, though, there are other personnel matchups that the Eagles should be able to dictate.

As I mentioned in my breakdown of the Vikings’ defense yesterday, much of their success versus the run is due to their ability to consistently bring a safety down and create an eight-man box, trusting the coverage behind them. But asking the Eagles tight ends to block Harrison Smith and the Viking linebackers could be an adventure. If you spread the Vikings out and get a six-man box, however, they can be had. Here are few examples:

How they spread the defense out, though, is equally important. Forcing the Vikings to go to their base defense by putting multiple tight ends on the field can create a major mismatch. While the Eagles don’t necessarily want their tights ends doing most of their blocking, they do create an advantage in space. The Vikings are probably happy with Smith shadowing Ertz, but if the Eagles can find a way to get linebackers Anthony Barr or rookie Ben Gedeon matched up on Burton or Corey Clement, good things will happen.

The Minnesota defense is very good, but they are also human and have flaws like any other defense. If Doug Pederson and crew can continue to sprinkle in the right amount of creativity at the right time, the Eagles offense should be able to find some success.

For now, though, we wait.

TWO. MORE. DAYS.

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One Response

  1. Fly Eagles fly, on the road to victory
    Fly Eagles fly, score a touchdown 1,2,3
    Hit them low, hit them high and
    Watch those Eagles fly
    Fly Eagles fly on the road to victory
    E A G L E S
    EAGLES!!!

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