A week ago we looked at what the Eagles and Falcons might perceive as their respective advantages going into the divisional round. Some matchups proved as important as we thought (Julio Jones and Jalen Mills battling away for the games final pass,) some barely came into play (Devonta Freeman carrying ten times for seven yards,) and some ran opposite to expectations (Atlanta’s maligned coverage unit coming away with a muffed punt that set up their only touchdown.)
Here are some matchups to watch for similar impacts this week against Minnesota:
When the Vikings have the Ball:
Case Keenum vs. the Eagles D-Line
This matchup starts with the Eagles front four (or seven, once you start rotating) taking on the Vikings much improved offensive line. A season ago the Vikings allowed 37 sacks and averaged 3.2 yards per rush: the worst mark in the NFL. When these two teams met last the Eagles racked up six sacks. In 2017, Minnesota has allowed just 27 sacks and raised their yards per carry to 3.9 despite losing Adrian Peterson to free agency and Dalvin Cook to injury.
That said, this Eagles front has a rare ability to impact games and some favorable matchups. Brandon Graham will be facing second year tackle Rashod Hill. It’ll be tough sledding for a second straight week for Hill, who endured Cameron Jordan for four quarters last weekend. Injuries have piled up along the offensive line for Minnesota this season, forcing players to shuffle positions and Hill to step in.
Another note about those 27 allowed sacks: only 22 of them have involved bringing down Keenum. The other five came in about five quarters of Sam Bradford’s play this season. The 2017 Vikings improvement has had as much to do with Keenum’s ability to elude pressure and scramble as it has better line play, and quarterbacks with that ability are something the Eagles have had mixed results against.
Most notably, their worst defeat came at the hands of Russell Wilson, who turned what would have been sacks of most other quarterbacks into three touchdown passes and the Eagles only two-score loss of 2017. But they also frustrated Cam Newton into three interceptions (while allowing him 71 rushing yards) sacked Alex Smith four times and Dak Prescott another four in Dallas. One of those latter performances would go a long way Sunday.
Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs vs. Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills
We’re one game removed from Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley being unable to effectively cover these two star receivers, so it’s unlikely that Darby and Mills will be asked to do the Saints secondary one better and play with no help. But they are the Eagles outside corners and will have the primary job of stopping Keenum’s two best weapons.
That job will be made much simpler if the defensive line can win their matchup and bring pressure without the need of extra blitzers dropping out of coverage and quickly enough to stop Thielen and Diggs from engaging in double moves on the Eagles corners. At 6-foot-3, Thielen will have an advantage on any ball he is asked to go up and get against the 5-foot-11 Darby or 6-foot-0 Mills. How far that advantage will take him against one of the most physical secondaries in the NFL is up for debate.
Darby’s speed might make him the better matchup for Diggs, who took advantage of Saints safety Marcus Williams missing a hit and blowing up Crawley for a game winning 61-yard touchdown as time expired that seemed straight out of the Desean Jackson play book. After a positive start to the season, the secondary’s tackling has been inconsistent of late, and they’ll need to be at their best in the most important game of the season to date. One thing is for sure, a week after facing Julio Jones, the Eagles won’t be intimidated.
When the Eagles have the Ball:
Doug Pederson vs. Mike Zimmer
When the Eagles offense is on the field, both head coaches will be sending in the plays. For the Birds, limited playcalling experience was one of the loudest complaints sounded when they hired their quarterback-turned-head coach. An aggressive turn towards fourth down and two-point conversions has been something to alternately celebrate and condemn in his two-year stint at the helm. And now, his scheming may be the biggest reason the Eagles got through the divisional round.
Pederson, the coach who drafted Nick Foles, coached him in Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Philadelphia again, wrought a game-plan that let Foles take what the Atlanta defense gave him and put the onus on his talented running backs and wide receivers to do extra work after the catch. Then the players executed it.
The challenges will be a little different this week, as Foles told the media Wednesday. “Atlanta...tried to keep everything in front of them. They (Minnesota) are a little bit more diverse in their coverages. They like to switch it up. They play a lot tighter down. They are not going to give us as much underneath. We are absolutely going to have to make some larger completions.”
Zimmer has called the Vikings’ defensive plays since being installed as the Head Coach in 2014. Over his career he’s presided over outstanding defenses in Dallas, Cincinnati, and his present squad in Minnesota, which allowed the fewest yards and points per game in the NFL. The Vikings defensive line is trouble enough, but Zimmer’s secondary is good enough that he can supplement the line with blitzes from linebackers or safeties. What they do is reminiscent of Jim Johnson’s great Eagles defenses at the turn of the millenium.
Pederson says the dangerous part of Zimmer’s blitzes is “you don't know where everybody is coming from. He'll present a normal, six-man box with it; he'll present a seven-man; he'll present an eight-man and you just have to try to sort it all out. It's tough to defend and puts a lot of quick pressure on your quarterback.” Sunday, Pederson’s job is limiting that pressure.
Nelson Agholor vs. Terrance Newman and Mackensie Alexander
Agholor has been one of the Eagles most dangerous weapons this season, but was mostly quiet against the Falcons in Philadelphia’s first playoff game. He finished with one big play on the ground, 20 rushing and 24 receiving yards in a game plan that would have seemed tailored to his ability to grab yards after the catch. Another of his traits - the big play downfield - might be necessary to move past the Vikings.
Agholor leads Eagles receivers in catches of more than 20 yards (9) and more than 40 yards (3) in 2017 and caught the team’s longest pass of the season: 72 yards. He’s thrived since becoming the team’s primary slot receiver, and working there means he’ll do the majority of his work against Newman or Alexander. Newman, the oldest defensive player in the NFL at 39, is a player from the Eagles past. The Cowboys (with Zimmer as Defensive Coordinator) took him fifth overall in the 2003 draft and he started in Dallas through 2011 before following Zimmer to Cincinnati and ultimately Atlanta.
Alexander is the other end of the spectrum, the Vikings second-round pick out of Clemson a season ago who has spent the last two seasons learning his role under Newman. Both players have been banged up this postseason, with Newman missing practice leading up to the Saints game and requiring Alexander to take on a bigger role there, and with Alexander himself sitting out this week. It won’t be easy, but Agholor’s physical advantages over the older Newman and experience against the younger Alexander might be one of the few mismatches the Eagles have up their sleeve against the Minnesota defense.