As the Vikings prepare to head into Philadelphia hoping to throw a wrench in their division title plans – the Eagles, like the Bears on Monday night, can clinch a division title with a win over the Vikings – a pair of Vikings have reason to look forward to heading out to Philly this weekend.
Lorenzo Booker and Lito Sheppard are both Eagles transplants now with the Vikings. Both of them know all too well what makes the Eagles tick on offense and defense.
Booker was a reserve running back with the Eagles in 2008, while Sheppard was in his final season in Philly as well – he would be traded to the Jets prior to the 2009 draft. Both have a history with the Eagles that they hope to take advantage of. When they left Philly, guys like Shady McCoy and Jeremy Maclin were in the germ phase of their development and Michael Vick was still in prison. The faces have changed, but the scheme remains the same.
Booker said that one thing he learned going up against Jim Johnson's blitz-happy defense in practice was to be ready at all times. From one week to the next, the Eagles defense could morph into something very different than upcoming opponents had studied on game tape.
"At the end of the day, they're going to do some different stuff than what we see on film," Booker said. "Each game they play, they prepare for them differently. There are indicators, but I don't think I'm more prepared than anyone else. What I might have is on players individually – what their strengths and weaknesses are – in terms of seeing them every single day, it will be on an individual basis."
With the Eagles, it would seem no player is too big for the system. Sheppard was traded as he neared the end of his contract. Donovan McNabb was traded within the division when it became apparent that the Eagles were looking to move in a new direction that, for one game, meant Kevin Kolb and ever since has been Michael Vick. Terrell Owens was kicked off the team despite being a dynamic playmaker on game day. Booker said the Eagles have been an elite team for years because of a simple organizational formula that works for Andy Reid and the rest of the franchise.
"The Eagles are an organization that has a strong belief that their system works," Booker said. "Their continued success would tell you that it's right. They find things that work and go after it. It isn't a surprise that they have guys who make explosive plays. They're loaded with them and they become dangerous when they have the ball. If they get a lead on you, that's when the defense gets nasty."
Getting nasty was something Sheppard enjoyed for seven seasons in Philadelphia. He relished the team's ability to disguise blitzes and bring pressure from unknown and unexpected locations, especially when facing an inexperienced quarterback like anticipated Vikings starter Joe Webb.
Sheppard said the worst thing the Vikings can do Sunday is dig themselves an early hole. If forced to throw the ball, the Eagles history has been to act like a school of piranhas with the smell of blood in the water. Sheppard said that will be a monumental challenge the Vikings offense will face Sunday. He's been a key cog in that machine and he knows what havoc they can rain down on a young quarterback.
"Every defense in the league, if you have a third-and-10 situation, they're coming," Sheppard said. "In Philly, they come on third-and-10, third-and-5 and third-and-1. The worst thing that can happen to another team is if they get up on them early. Any aggressive defense, once you're up and put teams in passing positions, you're able to dial up whatever blitz you want. They do a great job of mixing a lot of coverages in with the blitzes and they look pretty much the same. When you're scoring points and have a dynamic offense like they do, it allows you to be more aggressive."
The biggest obstacle the Vikings will face is Vick, who is putting together a MVP season in his first full NFL season in five years. Sheppard and Vick played together once – not with the Eagles, but as Pro Bowl teammates. He made an impression then and, as Sheppard lines up with the intent of stopping him, there's little question in his mind who the NFL's best quarterback is. He's prepared to face Vick and Tom Brady over the last two months and said that his vote is in and he's in the Vick camp.
"He is incredible," Sheppard said. "What he can do on the field is amazing. You see a play and say to yourself, ‘He didn't just do that?' and then you watch it again and he did. He makes plays that no other quarterback in the league can make. That makes him special."
The Vikings are going to be facing their biggest underdog role in three years as they head to Philly as a double-digit underdog with some sports books. For most of them, it will be another stop on the road the end of the 2010 season. For Booker and Sheppard, it will be a chance to re-connect to a city and team that they enjoyed playing with. For them, it will be something of a homecoming and a chance to see the success so many of their friends and former teammates are enjoying.
"I have a lot of friends that are still there," Sheppard said. "That was where I got my start. There is a lot of history there for me. We had a lot of good times, a lot of good years and a lot of tough competitions. It's going fun to see them. Hopefully, it won't be as fun for them."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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