With a record of 2-4 going into the eighth week of the season, the Eagles have far from lived up to the hype that surrounded them coming into the season, but Andy Reid's team has a big opportunity to turn things around this week against a young Minnesota team. Here is a look at five key match ups in Sunday's game:
1. Philadelphia's run defense vs. Adrian Peterson
The Eagles first order of business on Sunday will be finding a way to slow down the league's leading rusher, Adrian Peterson. As a rookie, the former Oklahoma Sooner has broken team records and shown game-breaking ability, all while still being listed as Chester Taylor's backup. In his coming-out party against the Chicago Bears two weeks ago, Peterson broke the Viking's single-game rushing record by putting up 224 yards on the ground along with three touchdowns, and showed a rare combination of speed, power, and agility. Minnesota's young star has five touchdowns this year and leads the NFL in rushing yards with 670, and in yards- per-carry with a 6.8-yard average. Peterson has also shown skills as a receiver out of the backfield and has 11 catches for 187 yards and a touchdown.
Jim Johnson's defense has been stout against the run this year and will face quite a challenge going against the duo of Peterson and Taylor. The Eagles are ranked eighth in the NFL in run defense, having allowed 88.0 rushing yards per game and two touchdowns. Although they have missed the intimidating presence of Brian Dawkins most of the year, Thomas Jones is the only running back to gain 100 yards rushing against Philadelphia this season. Part of the reason for their success against the run comes from the addition of Takeo Spikes, who leads the team with 37 tackles, and the improved play of Mike Patterson, who has 28 tackles.
2.Donovan McNabb vs. Minnesota's secondary
Although his numbers this year are mediocre compared to the past, McNabb seems to be
developing more confidence in his rehabilitated knee as each week passes, and his health is a key to the Eagles success. Last week against the Bears, McNabb scrambled out of the pocket in the second quarter for a nine-yard gain and reminded people of the dual threat he used to be. On the year, McNabb has an 88.4 quarterback rating and has thrown for 1447 yards and seven touchdowns, with only two interceptions. He has also developed chemistry with Kevin Curtis, as the former St. Louis Ram has averaged about five catches and 84.3 receiving yards per game in his first season in Philadelphia. McNabb and Curtis should be able to get a rhythm going against Minnesota's defense, which allows 282.5 passing yards per game, the most in the NFL. In the three times he has played the Vikings in his career, McNabb has a 117.5 quarterback rating, with seven touchdowns and zero interceptions.
The Vikings may give up yards through the air, but they have playmakers in their secondary who can shift the momentum of a game. Darren Sharper headlines the group, and the three time Pro-Bowler is still one of the NFL's elite at the safety position. Sharper, who ranks tied for 6th place in NFL history with 7 career interception returns, has 31 tackles, one fumble forced, three passes deflected, and two interceptions going into week eight. The Vikings also boast one of the leagues most physical corners in Antoine Winfield. A nine-year veteran known around the league as a hard-hitter, Winfield ranks second on the Vikings in tackles with 43 and has averaged over 105 tackles in the last four seasons. He also has a fumble forced on the year, along with four passes deflected, and an interception, which he returned for a touchdown.
3. Brian Westbrook vs. Minnesota's Defensive line
Against Chicago last week, Westbrook continued to show that he is a reliable option for Philadelphia and had 79 yards on 18 carries and six catches for 40 yards. After playing five games this season, Westbrook's 789 yards from scrimmage are the fourth most in the NFL and he has the third highest rushing total in the NFC. Whether he is used on screens, as a receiver, or running the ball, Westbrook is a critical component of the Eagles offensive success.
Westbrook will face his toughest challenge so far this season going against Minnesota's talented defensive line. The Vikings defense has allowed an average of only 76.5 yards per game on the ground and 459 yards total, which are both the lowest in the NFC. They are tied with Pittsburgh for the fewest rushing touchdowns allowed, having only given up one so far. The leaders on Minnesota's defensive line are tackles Pat and Kevin Williams. Pat earned his first Pro Bowl nod last season when the Vikings finished the year ranked number one against the run, and the 11-year veteran continues to clog running lanes with his size and strength. Kevin is one of the most highly regarded defensive tackles in the league, making two trips to the Pro Bowl and being named an Associated Press All-Pro twice in only his fifth year in the NFL. Minnesota's defensive line also features ends Kenechi Udeze and Ray Edwards, who have combined for 34 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 2.5 tackles for a loss, and 2 forced fumbles.
4. Eagles offense vs. the red zone
One of the Eagles biggest problems this season has been their inability to score touchdowns in the red zone. Whether it's dropped passes, penalties, or sacks, something always seems to stall Philadelphia's drives. While they would often capitalize inside the 20 last season, scoring a touchdown 56.5% of the time, this season has been a different story. Philadelphia has only six touchdowns in twenty red zone possessions and ranks thirtieth in red zone efficiency.
5. Andy Reid vs. Brad Childress
Before becoming the Vikings head coach, Childress served as the Eagles offensive coordinator under Reid during many of the teams playoff runs. Childress should have some insight into Philadelphia's west coast offense and personnel, having run the system from 1999 to 2005. The Vikings coach has made some moves this season that people have questioned, such as not starting Peterson, or sticking with quarterback Tavaris Jackson, who has the quarterback rating among starters in the NFL at 48.7.
Reid has similarly had to deal with criticism this season after having his worst start since 1999, his first year as Eagles head coach and McNabb's rookie year. Reid needs to find a way for his team to score points when they get the opportunity, whether this means calling different plays or just managing the game differently.
Philadelphia has beaten Minnesota six out of the last seven times the two teams have played.
Andrew Pluta can be reached at email@example.com.