The NFC Championship Game is being billed as a low-scoring slugfest between two of the NFL’s best defenses.
That’s certainly fair and accurate if you’ve watched either team play even 30 minutes of football this season. It’s backed up by the statistics and justified by the eye test.
But that’s not my focus for this story. Sean Cottrell will dive into the Viking defense later this week, while I start off a three-part breakdown series with a look at their offense.
For starters, let’s go through the regular season numbers to provide an overview of what the Eagles face on Sunday:
- 11th in total offense (356.9 yards per game)
- 11th in passing offense (234.6 YPG)
- 7th in rushing offense (122.3 YPG)
- 10th in points per game (23.9)
- 3rd in 3rd down conversion rate (43.5%)
- 30th in 4th down conversion (14.3% on 1-7 4th down attempts, 7 was fewest attempts in the entire league)
- 11th best in penalties committed (100 total, 6.25 per game)
- 6th in first downs (334 total)
- tied for 22nd in rush yards per attempt (3.9)
- tied for 7th in rushing touchdowns (15)
- 12th in passing touchdowns (25)
- 8 interceptions thrown (tied for 2nd lowest)
- 6 fumbles lost (tied for 7th lowest)
- average time of possession 32:29 (2nd, just behind Eagles)
Those numbers include a Week 1 victory where Sam Bradford threw for 300+ yards and three touchdowns, plus four games of smash-mouth Dalvin Cook running, pre-injury. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who might be on the move soon, has done a really nice job keeping this team rolling despite those setbacks.
They’re a balanced offense with a top-ten running game in raw yardage and scoring, though they drop into the bottom half of the league with that 3.9 yards per rush number. Similar to Atlanta, last week’s opponent, they convert third downs at a very high percentage and control the time of possession better than every other team except the Eagles. They throw few interceptions, rarely fumble the ball, and play a steady and disciplined game.
Let’s run those numbers against what Minnesota did last week for comparison, courtesy of the ESPN:
A lot of it checks out.
They controlled the clock by margin of 33:17 to 26:43. They finished +1 in turnover margin and ran the ball 29 times vs. 40 passing attempts, even at a 3.3 yards per rush rate. They went 10-17 on third down to convert at a ridiculous 58.8%. And penalties? Just four for 30 yards while the Saints shot themselves in the foot.
Individually, this is how they finished offensively:
It was Case Keenum’s first time throwing for more than 300 yards since November 12th. His passer rating was down and that completion percentage of 62.5% was also down from a regular season average of 67.6%, which was the second-best in the NFL behind Drew Brees’ all-time record of 72%. And it’s not just dink and dunk stuff, Keenum does throw the ball down the field plenty of times in a typical game.
Latavius Murray’s numbers were slightly down while Jerick McKinnon basically hit his season averages.
In receiving, they did this:
Obviously Stefon Diggs had the ridiculous walk-off touchdown grab that put 61 yards and a score on the stat sheet. If you take away that miracle final play, he had 5 receptions for 75 yards, which any defense would be willing to live with. Adam Thielen snagged six balls for 74 yards but didn’t find the end zone, which also mirrors what he did in the regular season. Thielen had a Julio Jones type of campaign, racking up 1,276 receiving yards but only scoring four touchdowns. Diggs had eight. Tight end Kyle Rudolph had eight. He was a bit limited in Sunday’s win.
Murray doesn’t do much in the receiving department but McKinnon is very good, catching 51 balls on 68 targets this season for 421 yards and two scores.
That’s the basic positional breakdown for you. The Thielen/Diggs combination is not that different from what you saw with Jones and Mohamed Sanu, where one guy is the #1 target and yardage gainer, while the other doesn’t catch as many balls but can burn you on a big play at any time. The tricky thing about Thielen is tracking him across different starting spots, as he had nearly half of his yards coming out of the slot. Rudolph isn’t going to gash you for Travis Kelce or Zach Ertz yardage, but he’s a potent red zone target. The running backs are not Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, but they are a solid 1-2 combination.
And before we get into the playoff film, it’s important to preface the Vikings’ run game with a look at 2016, when the team was dead last in the NFL. They addressed that in the offseason by going out and drafting Cook in the second round and Ohio State center Pat Elflein in the third. They paid Murray $15 million over three years and then went and dedicated $36 million to a pair of new starting tackles in Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, the former a free agent and the latter claimed off waivers. Joe Berger, last year’s center, was moved to guard and the Vikings basically rehauled their entire offensive line AND running back situation in one offseason. The line is much more athletic and the running back stable is consistent, if nothing else.
Let’s start there.
On the Vikings’ first score Sunday night, Reiff looks more like Lane Johnson as he pulls into space and throws a brilliant block against a much smaller Marshon Lattimore:
That’s a very Eagle-esque scheme there, not the toss per se, but the receivers blocking down while a lineman pulls.
After that touchdown, Minnesota’s defense held again, and the Vikings hit Diggs for a 3rd and 7 completion that moved the chains and kept their second drive alive. They then went to the air, getting pass interference calls on shots down the field from an RPO and more traditional I-formation play-action look.
But when they got down to the red zone, Pat Shurmur’s play-calling left something to be desired, with one running attempt and a couple of low percentage back-shoulder looks for Rudolph:
That was the third down decision. It really wasn’t a bad throw at all, but that’s such a limited play call. Interference or not, you’ve got the weapons to dial up something better than that.
When you go back and look at the play-by-play in the first half of this game, three things jump out:
- Minnesota was 5-8 on third down
- their average starting position was the 39 yard line (on the strength of two interceptions)
- New Orleans committed four pass interference penalties, two of which came on the same play (so it only went on the score sheet as one)
I’d actually chalk up the Vikings’ second touchdown drive to poor defense, rather than anything Minnesota did.
On this 3rd and 8, New Orleans only rushes three, can’t get to Keenum, and he has forever to pick out a receiver for the first down:
That’s not happening against the Eagles.
In the second half, the Saints did better on third down and started to get some pressure on Keenum, sacking him to end a drive, scoring on the ensuing drive, then following up with another good pass rush that forced a bad throw and an a huge interception:
— Def Pen Sports (@DefPenSports) January 15, 2018
Minnesota opened the second half with 12 plays on two drives that went for 35 yards and zero points and chewed up 7:09 on the clock. Their starting positions were not as beneficial as they were in the first half and that made a big difference.
Credit to Keenum for getting the job done on the final two drives of the game, but the Diggs touchdown was a brutal defensive breakdown and the Thielen catch leading to the Kai Forbath 53-yard field goal was a back-foot prayer that was 95% receiver and 5% quarterback.
This is not me being a homer. I promise. Others have pointed out how the game completely swung based on the Saints pulling their heads out of their rear ends in the second half, getting to the quarterback and cutting down on the terrible penalties.
Case Keenum had a passer rating of 5.1 when pressured vs the Saints. Eagles front pressures the QB more than any other in football. That could be the Vikings Achilles heel right there.
— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) January 16, 2018
Case Keenum has been pressured on 39.3% of his dropbacks this season. Third highest percentage in the NFL, per @PFF.
The Eagles’ defense recorded the most QB pressures in 2017.
— Brandon Lee Gowton (@BrandonGowton) January 15, 2018
That bodes very well for Sunday night. Another thing to consider isn’t just how Keenum does under pressure, but the disparity in his performance when he isn’t pressured:
Case Keenum: Worst QB from the weekend under pressure
Eagles: Get pressure at 41%, MOST in the NFL pic.twitter.com/BNud8M9enL
— Ryan Smith (@PFF_Smith) January 15, 2018
That’s a huge difference there. He was 116.5 in passer rating when kept clean, which was the best number of the weekend.
And I found this to be interesting as well, the contested catch metric, which really explains some of the big plays that the Vikings were able to make in the 4th quarter, and also throughout the regular season:
With the way the Vikings receivers have played all year, it really shouldn't surprise anyone that it was one of them who stepped up and made one of the biggest plays of all time in the playoffs pic.twitter.com/7pBDCMIC6L
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 15, 2018
For a quick exercise, let me propose four somewhat serious / somewhat rhetorical questions about the Viking offense, compared to what we saw last weekend:
- Is Case Keenum better than Matt Ryan?
- Is the combination of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs better than Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu?
- Is the 1-2 punch of Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray better than Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman?
- Is Pat Shurmur a better offensive coordinator than Steve Sarkisian?
I think #2 and #3 are a wash. I don’t think the Diggs/Thielen combo is any more potent than what the Eagles faced last week. I really don’t. And I also don’t think McKinnon/Murray is any tougher than Freeman/Coleman.
Pat Shurmur is definitely the better coordinator than Sark, but some of his red zone decisions do give you that Andy Reid coaching tree vibe. I think Shurmur did get a bit overlooked during his time working with Chip Kelly in Philadelphia, simply because Chip was this domineering and offensive-minded coach. If anything, Shurmur has done a nice job helping the likes of Keenum, Nick Foles, and Sam Bradford improve during their time working with him.
And I’d certainly be inclined to say that Ryan is more dangerous than Keenum, but Matty Ice had a down year by his standards (probably due to Sarkisian more than anything) and Keenum really took huge steps forward this year. It’s wrong to look at him as a career backup when he really played like a legitimate starting NFL quarterback in 2018. Most of his numbers were top 10 or top 12 in the important categories.
The takeaway for me is that while Minnesota’s offense should definitely be respected, I don’t think it presents anything the Eagles can’t handle. Jim Schwartz knows Shurmur, and his unit limited Atlanta to 10 points, strictly off turnovers. Carolina was held to 23 points in their own building with something like a +10 penalty margin. The Chargers, with the fourth most yards in the regular season, were taken care of on the road. Kansas City ranks 5th in total offense and the Birds were really competitive at Arrowhead, too.
The Vikings offense is a solid unit that probably does get overshadowed by an elite defense, but this is not the 2001 Rams coming to Lincoln Financial Field. If the Eagles pressure Case Keenum, play their typically stout run defense, and limit the big play ability of Diggs and Thielen, then they should be good to go. The blueprint is no different than what they put together in the divisional round.
Whether or not Nick Foles can move the ball down the field is another issue, but Sean will go through that later this week.