Eagles-Vikings Preview: A Tale of Two QBs
The undefeated Minnesota Vikings (5-0) visit Philadelphia to take on the suddenly reeling Eagles (3-2), who have lost their last two games. Both teams have great defenses and offense that don't turn the ball over. Plus, both starting quarterbacks were Eagles as recently as the preseason.
Vikings QB Sam Bradford was traded to the Vikings right before the regular season and has gone 4-0 as a starter. While he has done well, that trade allowed the Eagles to accelerate the time-table for rookie QB Carson Wentz, so this is one of those rare trades that was a win for both sides. Unfortunately, both teams can't win this game, so let's take a look at the matchups.
Eagles Offense Versus Vikings Defense
Wentz is coming off his worst game of the season against Washington, completing just 11 of 22 passes for 179 yards, but he didn't turn the ball over and has 1,186 yards passing, 7 TDs and 1 INT on the season. He looked like a rookie for the first time all season and was under constant pressure against the Redskins. The Eagles are ranked only 21st in offense overall (338.8 yards per game) and dropped to 26th in passing (225.2 ypg) after getting shut down by the Redskins. The offense only managed 2 FGs. More bad news: the Vikings defense is 1st in points allowed per game (12.6), 2nd in total defense (287.6 ypg) and 6th against the pass (209.8). This might be the toughest test Wentz will face all season.
Wentz still doesn't have any explosive weapons in the passing game, as Jordan Matthews is more of a possession receiver, and none of the other receivers on the team can get open consistently. That's very bad new against a Vikings defense that has only allowed 4 passing TDs this season. CBs Xavier Rhodes, Terence Newman and Trae Waynes have shut down some of the best receivers in the NFL this season, so they aren't exactly sweating a matchup against the Eagles receiving "threats". If TE Zach Ertz can get out into a pass pattern this game maybe he can do some damage, but he'll be covered by Minnesota safety Harrison Smith, who has four career INTs returned for a TD. The Eagles best bet to get some passing yardage is RB Darren Sproles coming out of the backfield against LB Anthony Barr.
The Eagles have run the ball a lot this season to keep the pressure off their rookie QB, which explains their No. 8 rushing rank (113.6 ypg). The problem is that they are only averaging 4.1 yards per carry and the Vikings are ranked 4th against the run (77.8 ypg). The Eagles have used a RB-by-committee approach, with Ryan Mathews at the head of that committee. Too bad he hasn't been very good on the rare occasions when he has been healthy this season. Also, when you notice the Kendricks in purple on Sunday, playing middle LB for the Vikings, just know that Minnesota definitely got the more talented of the Kendricks brothers. Eric Kendricks led the Vikings in tackles last season as a rookie and has a 77-yard INT return for a TD this season. Older brother Mychal is often seen lying on the ground after getting beaten for TDs.
The biggest mismatch of the game will be the Eagles offensive line trying (and failing) to block the Vikings defensive line. Everyone (but apparently Eagles head coach Doug Pederson) saw how terrible RT Haalpoulivaati Vaitai was in his first NFL start, subbing for the suspended Lane Johnson. He gave up two sacks and generally got used and abused by Washington OLB Ryan Kerrigan. It won't get much easier this week against DE Brian Robinson, who has 4 sacks. Minnesota also rotates in DE Danielle Hunter, who should add to his 4 sacks against the Eagles. On the other side, LT Jason Peters is going to have his hands full with DE Everson Griffen, who is well on his way to his third straight season of double-digit sacks (4 sacks). Even DT Linval Joseph has 3 sacks and DT Tom Johnson has 2 sacks and a team-high 31 QB hurries. This team can get after the quarterback. Center Jason Kelce, who has looked completely over-matched all season is expected to play in spite of missing practice with a foot injury. Carson Wentz might not finish this game.
Vikings Offense Versus Eagles Defense
Vikings QB Sam Bradford leads the NFL in completion percentage (70.4) and is 2nd in QB Rating (109.7). In spite of that, the Vikings are only ranked 24th in passing (232 ypg) and 30th overall (302.6 ypg) on offense. As any Eagles fan who watched Bradford last season knows, the best thing that Bradford can do is not lose the game for his team. He never throws the ball down the field and is "Captain Checkdown". He hasn't thrown an interception in 125 attempts this season and the only turnover the Vikings have committed this season was a fumble by the defense. Bradford is the perfect game-manager for a team with a defense as dominating as Minnesota has.
Not surprisingly, Bradford's favorite target is TE Kyle Rudolph, who has 3 TD catches. This might be a troubling matchup for the Eagles, after we saw Washington backup TE Vernon Davis burn safety Malcolm Jenkins repeatedly last week. Bradford's other favorite target, WR Stefon Diggs missed Minnesota's last game with a groin injury. Adam Thielen replaced him against Houston and had 7 catches for 127 yards and a TD, though. It's a good thing that the Eagles 4th ranked pass defense (207.4 ypg) should be getting back CB Leodis McKelvin this week. Apparently, rookie CB Jalen Mills just loves giving his index finger a workout every time a receiver doesn't catch a big pass against him, which means he doesn't get to do that very often. And every time I saw him do it last week, I wanted to wave a different finger in his direction. With McKelvin back, Mills goes back to the bench, where he belongs.
What will be the fans' reaction to the return of Sam Bradford
Normally the first thing you think about with the Vikings is Adrian Peterson. Unfortunately for Minnesota, he's out for the season. That means Jerrick McKinnon and Matt Asiata are handling the rushing duties. That hasn't exactly worked out well for the Vikings, as they are ranked dead last in the NFL in rushing (70.6 ypg) and yards per carry (2.5). It's not from a lack of trying though, as the Vikings are averaging 28.8 rushing attempts per game, 6th most in the league. Expect them to continue to try to run the ball, after the Eagles gave up 230 yards rushing to the Redskins last week. That pitiful showing dropped the Eagles to 18th against the run (104.6). The Wide-9 defensive front has a history of not be able to stop the run and the Eagles might not have the right LBs to fill the big lanes caused by the DEs getting wide to go after the QB. You might just see a lot more of Stephen Tulloch this week.
As bad as the Eagles offensive line has looked at times this season, the Vikings are far worse. Both of Minnesota's starting tackles, Matt Kalil and Andre Smith, are on injured reserve, LG Alex Boone is playing through a hip injury and RG Brandon Fusco suffered a concussion 2 weeks ago. This looks like a prime matchup for the Eagles defensive linemen to get their confidence back after not getting a sack last week. DE Connor Barwin has been invisible lately, but I think that has more to do with the fact that he's really an OLB, playing out of position. Personally, I think they should bench Kendricks, move Barwin to LB and start Vinnie Curry and his bloated contract at DE. Sorry for going off on that tangent. DE Brandon Graham should dominate RT Jeremiah Sirles, who is making only his 3rd NFL start. And if DT Fletcher Cox doesn't have the game of his life against Fusco, he should be required to give back some of that huge contract he signed.
This might be the only week all season where the Eagles don't have a decided advantage on special teams. Yes, the Eagles coverage units are among the best in the NFL, but they are going to be tested on Sunday. Vikings punt returner Marcus Sherels has 5 career punt return TDs, including 2 already this season. Vikings kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson has 4 TD returns since 2013. On the other side, the Eagles Darren Sproles has 4 punt return TDs over the last two years with the Eagles and has led the NFL in punt return yards in each of the last two seasons. Plus, kick returner, Wendell Smallwood returned a kickoff for a TD last week. I wouldn't take your bathroom breaks during special teams on Sunday. You might just miss something exciting.
Eagles head coach Doug Pederson might get a pass for starting a rookie RT last week, but starting him again this week is inexcusable. I'm not sure if the Eagles have decided they aren't going to win this year anyway, and are grooming their RT of the future, but continuing to start Vaitai is sure to get the franchise QB hurt. That's just plain stupid. Plus, the Eagles lead the NFL with an average of 9.8 penalties per game. That is a direct reflection on coaching. All the stories about defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz getting a head coaching job next season might have been a little premature, after his defense has gotten shredded in each of the last two weeks. Jimbo needs to get "the Schwartz" back, and fast. Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer is a defensive-minded coach, which explains why the Vikings are winning with defense and a ball-control offense that minimizes mistakes. He's 5-0 this season, in spite of losing Adrian Peterson, both starting OTs and his starting QB. The man is a shoe-in for Coach of the Year. Other notable Minnesota coaches include TE coach Pat Shurmur, who was the Eagles offensive coordinator (2013-2015). And former Eagle, Hank Fraley is Minnesota's assistant OL coach. Fraley was the center from 2000-2005 and started Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville. That means he had a front row seat to McNabb puking in the huddle.
This is not going to be an exciting, high-scoring game. Both teams rely on their defense to win them games and both teams are having major issues along the offensive line. Normally that wouldn't favor the team that lost its starting QB, RB and both OTs, but the Eagles are starting a rookie QB. And Bradford's familiarity with the Eagles schemes and players is certainly an advantage for the Vikings. Plus, the Vikings have won 8 consecutive regular season games and 7 of their last 8 road games. Oh, the Vikings are also coming off their bye. I just don't see how the Eagles can win.
Vikings 20 - Eagles 16