Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich says the Vikings defense is the best his team has faced all year. And the statistics say he's right.
"I think one of the reasons why is they can get pressure with four and cover with seven," the coach said Tuesday, shrugging off rumors he might be a top candidate to coach the Titans next season. "Any time you can get pressure with four and cover with seven, that's kind of been the key to our defensive success. That's a winning formula. That's been a proven winning formula for a long time, so I think this week is a good test of that."
According to some numbers crunching, the Vikings defense is the best of all time on third downs (or at least the best in the last two decades). They allow a conversion just over 25 percent of the time, which is a remarkably good rate (the Eagles are third best in the NFL at 32 percent).
"I think they are the best maybe ever," wide receiver Torrey Smith, who is preparing to face them Sunday afternoon said. "Statistically it's pretty crazy."
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A week ago, in their 15-10 win over the Falcons, the Eagles were exceptionally successful at giving themselves third and manageable situations. Only three times out of 13 third down situations versus Atlanta did Philly need more than seven yards, averaging around five yards per attempt. As fans no doubt know Carson Wentz' accolades on third down were incredible, and his injury certainly hurts the team's third down approach. But even under Nick Foles Saturday the Birds had six third downs with less than four to go. If they can do that again, they might be able to withstand the Vikings treacherous defense.
"It's huge especially against a team like that, that can make plays on third down and get off the field," Smith said. "That's a key to our success. We have been good on third down and manageable."
So, if third and short is important, than first and second downs become important too. Suddenly, against a team like the Vikings, a three of four yard gain on the early downs becomes a necessity.
"I think like last week we need to get in rhythm," Reich said. "We need to stay in phase. We had a lot of third-and-manageables last week. I think we avoided negative plays. We had obviously a few negative runs … We didn't have too many penalties. … Last week I think we had three drives of over 10 plays, so that's the challenge against going up against one of the better defenses in the league."
One of the biggest reasons for the third down success since Wentz' injury has been the play of Corey Clement, who has scored a surprise six touchdowns this year — two of them through the air. Saturday against Atlanta he had five catches, two of which netted first downs.
"That's been a surprise," Reich admitted, "a running back from Wisconsin who is running power. You’re thinking he's going to come in here and be your third-down back. But he's worked very hard at it and really made a role for himself."