The Vikings offense isn't going to be in for too many surprises Sunday when they face Jim Johnson's Philadelphia defense. The Eagles don't disguise what their philosophy. They blitz early. They blitz often. Very often.
By the estimates of players and coaches alike, the Eagles send an extra defender between 70 and 80 percent of snaps. They come from all angles with different personnel and keep offenses guessing. The Vikings hope that this gambling style will lend itself to Minnesota's offense being to take advantage of their aggression by making big plays. But at the same time, they know that is easier said than done.
"That's the theory," center Matt Birk said. "They're pretty sound at what they do. They understand exactly where they're supposed to be and what they're supposed to do on each play. That's why they've been so good for so long. Jim Johnson has been there for a long time. He's knows what he's doing and how to get his point across to his players. We just have to try to account for everybody and let our playmakers get a chance to do what they do best."
The organized chaos the Eagles generate with their numerous blitz packages has befuddled many teams, including the Vikings last year when the teams met. As the Vikings prepare for another dose of Johnson's take-no-prisoners style of defense, they are doing extra homework to try to figure out if there are any giveaways when and where the blitzes will be coming from. The study process has been extensive and the players are searching for keys that may give them the slightest advantage and could turn a potential sack into a big play with man coverage downfield.
"You try to watch film and see patterns of what they do in different situations," guard Steve Hutchinson said. "You look for the blitzes you've seen on film during the season. They take pride in throwing new things at you and inventing new things from week to week. You're not going to see the same things a lot of the time. You still have to be instinctive and pick up things as they present themselves."
However, trying to decipher what Johnson has in store from one play to the next isn't easy. Perhaps no defense shows as many different looks as the Eagles. Offenses know they're coming with the blitz. It's a matter of trying to guess right and stack coverage to where they anticipate the blitz may come from. But with such a vast number of different blitzes Philly can throw at offenses, it may just come down to everyone doing his individual job to perfection all game long to neutralize the blitzes.
"They have a deep repertoire," Birk said. "You have to make sure you shine at what you're doing. You might see something you've never seen before. That's why it is playoff football. You have to be ready for anything."
In the crosshairs of the Eagles attack will be quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. He will be on the hot seat all day, whether it's handing the ball off or dropping to pass. He, too, is burning the midnight oil in the film room trying to see as many reads as he possibly can have before he faces the Eagles live on Sunday.
"I'm just studying as much a possible – trying to get indicators as to what they might do," Jackson said. "You know you're not always going to have a great play and you might have to take a loss and punt the football. You don't want to try to make plays out of nothing. We just can't make mistakes."
Part of that may result in the Vikings not taking too many risks that could turn the game around with a big turnover. Jackson got a taste of what to expect this Sunday from the Giants last Sunday. He was constantly under fire with blitzes and said he learned from the experience. He also learned that at times discretion is the better part of valor, but also the need to hit an explosive play or two in order to try to keep the Eagles from teeing off on him every play.
"You have to be smart with the football and get it out of your hands as quickly as possible," Jackson said. "You have to make it hurt. If you get big plays, you can discourage them from doing it again."
In the end, Sunday's game may well be decided by how effectively the Vikings can neutralize the blitzing of the Eagles defense. There's no doubt they will be coming, but the Vikings believe that Philadelphia has lived by the blitz and can also die by the blitz.
"That's the double-edged nature of the blitz," Hutchinson said. "They blitz to stop the run before it gets started, but if everyone gets picked up someone gets out of their gap, a running back could be one-on-one with a safety seven yards up the field as their last line of defense. It's a double-edged sword and one that we think we can take advantage of."
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