The Eagles are flying into Minnesota well-aware of the Vikings defensive front that awaits them.
Eagles Head Coach Doug Pederson and veteran center Jason Kelce spoke on separate occasions with Philadelphia media members this week, and both emphasized the importance of not getting into third-and-long situations against Minnesota.
In six seasons under Head Coach Mike Zimmer, the Vikings have ranked in the top five of third-down defense three times. In 2017 and 2018, they topped the league. Through five games this season, Minnesota has allowed opponents to convert 34.85 percent of their third-down attempts, which ranks ninth.
Pederson emphasized the Vikings "aggressive style of play" on defense and said that Zimmer has "a pretty extensive blitz package" for third downs specifically.
"He has unique ways of how he can rush the passer on third down," Pederson explained. "So, being able to protect Carson [Wentz is important]. And I think the other key, really, is that your plays have to be positive on first down. It's an area that we kind of struggled with at the beginning of the season."
In Week 1 against the Redskins, the Eagles gained four-plus yards on 48.3 percent of their first-down attempts. That number dipped dramatically to 37.0 percent in Week 2, during which Philadelphia averaged just 2.7 yards gained on first downs in a loss to Atlanta.
The Eagles gained at least four yards on 45.2 percent of first-down attempts in Week 3 against Detroit (loss), 55.2 percent in Week 4 at Green Bay (win) and 36.0 percent against the Jets last weekend. Worth noting is that Philadelphia had control of the Week 5 contest against New York from the get-go, which likely influenced the game plan.
"We've gotten better here recently," Pederson said. "But staying ahead of those chains, keeping yourself in second-and-shorter distances where you're going to get that first down and stay on the field – try to, as best as you can, eliminate as many third-and-long situations against this defense, against his scheme, [is key]."
Kelce has faced a Zimmer-led Vikings team the past three consecutive seasons, including the 2017 NFC Championship Game.
The 31-year-old center said that Minnesota always has "something new" defensively.
"Zim's always prided himself, at least when we play them, on having some third-and-medium-to-long situational blitzes that he's going to try and test you with, that he's going to try and get home on," Kelce said.
"He does a good job of making it look like everybody has an opportunity to blitz, and it's hard to cancel guys out or really set the protection based off of all that stuff," Kelce later added. "Hopefully we can stay out of those third-and-long situations as much as possible. Obviously, that's when he really likes to dial them up."
Although the two teams have met three times in as many seasons, Sunday will mark the first time that the Vikings play host since December 2013.
The Eagles did play at U.S. Bank Stadium, however, in February 2018, when they defeated the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.
Pederson, Wentz and Kelce all were asked about returning to Minneapolis and feelings that may accompany the trip. All three emphasized expectations of a much different atmosphere this time around.
Pederson already is anticipating a roaring crowd that will not be on his side Sunday. He referenced the seasons he spent with the Packers coach staff and memories of playing the Vikings then.
"We'd go over to the Metrodome and play, and that place was rocking and shaking," Pederson said. "The crowd is loud, and the guy on the motorcycle (Ragnar) is running around and riding his bike. It's an exciting, it's a great place [to play].
"Obviously we had success the last time [at U.S. Bank Stadium], but this is different," he continued. "The crowd's going to be different, it's a noon game. We've gotta get ourselves ready to play a good football team, and obviously the crowd will be in their favor."
Kelce said he's approaching the matchup in Minnesota like any other game.
"Maybe when you're on the field it will feel different – I'll be able to tell you that more after the game," he told reporters. "For the most part, I'm just going out there to play a football game. It gets really loud – we're going to have to really be on-point with the cadence, with the communication.
"We've had a lot of big games against these guys over the past few years, so their fans I'm sure are going to be up and ready for this one," Kelce added.
Here are other highlights from Eagles talking about the Vikings this week:
Pederson on scouting Vikings RB Dalvin Cook prior to the 2017 NFL Draft:
"The thing that I remember, having scouted Dalvin when he was coming out of college, is that he is that dual threat – both running and catching the football – and he's having a heck of a start to this year. He looks and appears healthy. He runs hard; he runs violent, and that's tough to bring down. Our defense has a challenge ahead trying to at least slow him down and try to get him on the ground. But then again, that's the thing – you focus too much on that, and he can beat you through the air, as far as catching balls out of the backfield. You know, you have to be patient, you have to slow him down in one area and then not let him beat you possibly catching the ball."
"We were close right there at that time [to drafting him]. … We were close to pulling the trigger on that one."
(Note: The Vikings traded up to draft Cook 41st overall. The Eagles selected cornerback Sidney Jones with the 43rd pick.)
Kelce on the Vikings defensive personnel:
"In general, they just have great players. They've had great players every time we've played them – the linebackers fly around and make plays; the defensive front, everybody knows about. I don't know where they're at in the NFL sack-wise, but they've gotta be towards the top. The two ends (Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter) are perennial players – Hunter really came on strong for them last year. And then obviously Linval [Joseph] inside is not any small pickings or anything. We've got our hands full this week.
"They're as good as any I've seen. [Eric Kendricks], he's a really, really athletic guy, smart, flies around and makes a lot of plays, and then [Anthony] Barr, he's got everything you could want in a linebacker – he's big, physical, fast. He's got all the tools. … This is about as good a defense as we're going to face."
Wentz on facing a Zimmer-led defense:
"They're very complex. They do a lot of different things – different fronts, different blitz looks, and then at the same time, the personnel they have, a lot of good players and a lot of guys who are extremely knowledgeable on defense. They've played together for a long time, so they're able to disguise things and bluff things and bring pressures from different ways because they're all so in-sync."
Wentz on playing near his hometown of Fargo, ND:
"Without a doubt. There's a lot of friends, family, I mean, this is about three hours from North Dakota, from NDSU, so without a doubt there will be a big contingency of family [and] friends that are excited they'll get to see me play live."