This year, the team has enjoyed similar success bottling up last year's leading rusher Larry Johnson, as well as Tatum Bell, Cedric Benson and Julius Jones. But this week, they face a completely different type of runner in Brian Westbrook. Unlike most running backs, Westbrook is so vital to the Eagles offense that he is used in more ways than any other back in the league.
"He's such a versatile guy," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "I don't know if he's a straight-ahead speed guy, but he's so shifty and so good at kind of picking his way through piles. He could be the best all-around back we've seen so far. He's going be the total package. He can line up as a receiver, he can run routes and he can do everything. He's going to be one of the best complete backs we've seen for sure."
Through six games, Westbrook not only leads the Eagles with 89 rushes for 490 yards (a 5.5 yard average) and two touchdowns, but he also leads the team with 31 receptions – good for 299 yards and another TD. Extrapolated out to a 16-game schedule, that adds up to 1,307 yards rushing and another 797 receiving for a projected grand total of 2,104 yards of offense. It's no wonder the Vikings are taking a long look at Westbrook both on film and in practice.
"He's one of those guys that you have to make sure you know where he is on every snap," safety Darren Sharper said. "This week in practice we're going to have someone pretending to be Westbrook so we know to keep on eye on where he lines up. He's one of those guys who is just as dangerous as a runner as he is as a receiver. You don't find too many guys like that."
Some teams have opted to go with a "spy" approach to Westbrook – assigning a player to following him wherever he goes and try to clamp him down in the passing game by putting a body on him whenever he crosses the line of scrimmage. The Vikings, who employ a Cover-2 defense, won't take that approach.
"This isn't a defense that uses a spy," linebacker Ben Leber said. "Our defense is based on speed and covering your zone. The problem (Westbrook) brings is that you never know from one play to the next where he's going to line up or what he's going to do on that particular play. He does a lot of things well and, if he comes in your zone, you have to be ready to step up and make plays. He can make a big play from anywhere on the field, so our job is to stay in our area and, if he comes into your area, wrap him up and don't let him get away.'
That has been easier said than done. A standard Westbrook stat line is 15-20 carries for 80-100 yards and five or more receptions for 60-80 yards. He has become so important to the Eagles offense that when he has missed time with injury, the offense has reverted into a shell and has been significantly less productive. But, from the defensive side of things, the Vikings can't let Westbrook's versatility change what they do normally.
"You want to be aware of where he is," Greenway. "I don't think you need to adjust a lot of things or do anything crazy – just be aware of where he is. And the biggest thing for us is just be able to tackle."
As always, the Vikings defense remains predicated on stopping the run – something they have done very effectively over the last two years. Westbrook is going to provide the biggest challenge to date this season – at least until LaDainian Tomlinson comes to town next week – and the defense believes it will be ready for him.
"We pride ourselves on being able to stop the run, whether it's a big runner who goes between the tackles or a speed guy that tries to runs to the outside," defensive end Kenechi Udeze said. "Westbrook is one of those runners that can hurt you in a lot of ways, but we've been able to pretty much control just about every style of runner we've faced the last couple of seasons. He'll be a big challenge because of the different things he can do, but we're going to be prepared for him."