Two games tell most of the story for the Philadelphia Eagles – their game against the Steelers that they won 34-3 and last week’s 27-23 loss at Washington. Those games show the two faces of the Eagles, the next opponent for the Minnesota Vikings.
Against the Steelers, who opted more to play coverage, quarterback Carson Wentz was afforded time in the pocket and was able to read his progressions to complete passes.
Against the Redskins, he was blitzed and pressured and the results were obvious. He looked flustered and got rid of passes faster than he should have. The Eagles scored 20 points, but only six of those points were produced by the offense. Washington got five sacks and four of them came on back-to-back pass plays – Wentz’s first two pass attempts of the game and his first two with the ball down by seven points coming out of the two-minute warning. Expect to see the Vikings bringing the heat often.
The biggest advantage the Eagles pose for an aggressive defense like Minnesota’s is that they have speed players who can eat up big chunks of yardage in space. Ryan Matthews is the primary running back and he prefers to run around tacklers rather than over them. He’s joined by Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood, both of whom can make big plays when put out in space. Expect all three of them to see a time share of snaps.
The speed of the Eagles offense also includes its receiver corp. Jordan Matthews is considered the No. 1 receiver, but they also mix in 2015 first-rounder Nelson Agholar, third-year pro Josh Huff and former Titans cast-off Dorial Green-Bechkham. Even tight end Zach Ertz can stretch the seam. The Vikings will be prepared to see quick passes and bubble screens liberally mixed into the passing game.
With a veteran O-line, the Eagles’ primary job is to use technique instead of overpowering size and strength. They can be vulnerable to the numbers that blitzes create, but hold up pretty well when man on man.
Just as there are predictable elements of the Eagles offense, their defense is equally prone to doing the same things – which can be both good and bad.
What jumps out almost immediately is the push off the line that the Eagles’ front four consistently gets. The Eagles don’t blitz an inordinate amount because the defensive line – Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin at ends and Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan on the inside – can get the job done. Their apparent motive is to bull rush the pocket on every play. If you have an immobile quarterback like Pittsburgh had in Ben Roethlisberger, that is a sound strategy. Cox and Graham were surrounding him more times than not, whether they got a sack or forced the ball out of his hands. Even a suspect quarterback like Kirk Cousins was able to make plays by rolling away from the pressure and having the back seven players chasing receivers. Even in the running game, one lineman getting too deep can create running lanes, which the Redskins took full advantage of last week. The Vikings may look to create plays beyond the line of scrimmage to take advantage of what the Eagles do consistently to collapse the pocket with aggression that, at times, seems out of control.
The back seven of the Philadelphia defense has active playmakers, highlighted by weakside linebacker Mychal Kendricks, the brother of Eric Kendricks, and veteran cornerback Leodis McKelvin. Like many teams, the Eagles have looked to improve one side of the ball through free agency. The Vikings’ last opponent, the Houston Texans, did it on offense. The Eagles have built their secondary on free agency, signing McKelvin away from Buffalo, cornerback Nolan Carroll from Miami, safety Malcom Jenkins from New Orleans and Rodney McCray from Los Angeles. Individually, they all have talent, but they will freelance, which can either create big plays or disastrous ones.
The Eagles are a team that needs a win Sunday in the worst way. A victory keeps their hot start intact and will put them in the discussion of legitimate playoff contenders if they can knock off the last remaining unbeaten team. A loss would be their third straight, which would negate all the promise of September. The Vikings are going to see an aggressive Eagles team because, quite literally, their season may be on the line if they don’t pull out of their current tailspin. How Minnesota handles their aggressive nature will be the determining factor.