Notebook: Attacking Eagles Defense to Challenge Vikings Run Game

EAGAN, Minn. — Through Week 5 of 2019 NFL season, there have been 48 games where a quarterback has thrown for at least 300 yards. His team’s record in those games is 24-22-2.

There have also been 30 games where running back has run for at least 100 yards. His team’s record in those games is 21-9.

Philadelphia is 2-1 when allowing a 300-yard passer, but good luck finding a game where the Eagles defense allows a 100-yard rusher, much less 100 total rushing yards in a game.

As the Vikings and Eagles get set for a pivotal NFC clash Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, the matchup pits strength against strength in regards to Minnesota’s rushing attack vs. Philadelphia’s rushing defense.

“Great combination of scheme and players,” said Vikings Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski. “They have really good players, and I think the scheme is sound. It’s an attacking style.

“They get off the ball, they tackle well, they play with great effort,” Stefanski added. “And then the players — you could name every single one of them, honestly — but I think [defensive tackle] Fletcher Cox and [defensive end] Brandon Graham, what they bring to the table is really a special group.”

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer also mentioned the pair of linemen, as well as safety Malcolm Jenkins, as key figures in the Philadelphia’s stifling run defense.

“They’re very aggressive up front. Graham and Cox, they’re very physical guys on our right side,” Zimmer said. “They do a nice job with Jenkins, who gets in the box a lot and makes a lot of plays.

“They’re running a couple different coverages now, but they’re mixing up the fronts a little bit more than they have in the past,” Zimmer added. “They’ve got a few more line stunts that they’ve been doing.”

The Eagles have allowed just 63.0 rushing yards per game in 2019, as Philadelphia has already recorded three games in which it has allowed fewer than 70 yards.

Additionally, the Eagles have allowed just 15 first downs on the ground, which is tied for fewest with New England. Philadelphia has also given up just 3.25 yards per carry.

Stefanski explained that while most teams read and react when opponents run the ball, Philadelphia’s defense heads upfield to the quarterback and simply tries to get the ball carrier on the way.

“There are some teams that are playing into blocks and reading off your blocks, [whereas] these guys are coming off the ball and attacking gaps and they’re trying to disrupt,” Stefanski said. “We know that, we’ve looked at the film, and we have to be ready to match their intensity.”

Minnesota rushed for 77 yards in a Week 5 win at Philadelphia in 2018, but that was without Dalvin Cook, who has spearheaded the Vikings running game in 2019.

Cook ranks second in the NFL with 542 rushing yards and is averaging 5.9 yards per carry. The third-year running back is a key reason why Minnesota ranks third in the league with 166.4 yards per game this season.

Cook understands the challenge that awaits Sunday against the Eagles.

“Just trying to get some explosives out of whatever carries I get. I really don’t have a preference of carries,” Cook said. “As a runner, it’s really keeping your offense and keeping your team ahead of the sticks. That’s what you kind of get as a runner.

“The big plays are going to come, but in the NFL, you have to kind of take those 5-yard gains, those 4-yard gains,” Cook added. “They kind of take a toll on defenses, and it helps our offense make big plays. We’ve got the guys to do it, so the goal in my head is to stay ahead of the sticks and keep us in honest downs.”

The Vikings have already faced a stout run defense in 2019, as Minnesota managed just 40 yards on 16 carries against Chicago, with zero runs of 10 or more yards.

It’s a good bet the Vikings will try to establish the ground game against the Eagles, but there are also other ways that Minnesota can pick up chunks of yards, including the short passing game.

In the Vikings Week 5 win over the Giants, quarterback Kirk Cousins threw for 306 yards, but only six of his 27 attempts traveled more than 10 yards downfield.

Cousins and the Vikings offense relied on an efficient run game that was buoyed by timely play-action passes, allowing the quarterback find holes in a defense that was focused on the run.

If Cousins and the Vikings can complete short passes, those could serve as a stand-in for the run game if it struggles to get going.

A 5-yard gain on first down makes it a manageable second-and-5, while the same gain on second-and-long could put the Vikings offense in a third-and-short or third-and-medium situation.

Either way, it will be an all-hands-on deck approach for the Vikings against a ferocious Eagles defense.

“[Philadelphia has a] fast, physical defense,” Cook said. “But it’s more about the type of football we play, and the type of football we put on display out there on Sunday.

“If we come to play our type of football game and make them match our intensity and play at a high level … I think we’ll be alright,” Cook added. “Just going in there and playing Minnesota football.”

Seeing red

Each week, it’s common speak for players and coaches to emphasize clean play in crucial areas such as the red zone.

That is not just a talking point this week, as both the Vikings and Eagles feature units that excel inside the 20-yard line.

Philadelphia’s offense is tied for fifth in the red zone with a touchdown percentage of 68.42, having scored 13 touchdowns on 19 possessions. Defensively, the Eagles have allowed touchdowns on half of the 16 possessions when opposing offenses have been inside the 20-yard line.

The Vikings offense has found the end zone on nine of 15 possessions (60 percent) that have been inside the 20, which is tied for 11th. Minnesota’s defense, meanwhile, ranks fifth with an allowed a touchdown percentage of 46.15, having allowed six touchdowns on 13 possessions.

Zimmer highlighted the challenge that will come once either team gets the ball in the red zone Sunday.

“They’ve had two interceptions in the red zone, so that always helps, but — some teams in this league don’t understand how to play down there, the red zone principles,” Zimmer said. “We do a good job with it, and they do a good job with it, but they’re also second in the league in red zone touchdowns, too, so we’re going to have to play really good because they have some really good schemes that they’re doing and we’re going to have to be on top of it.

“You can tell when a team knows how to play in the red zone, just by leverage and position and where they are on the field and how they’re playing receivers,” Zimmer later added about a team’s defensive philosophy near the end zone. “You can tell the teams that know how to do it.”

View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster for the 2019 season.

Smith earns NFL’s Week 5 Way to Play Award

Harrison Smith earned the NFL’s Way to Play Award for Week 5 for using proper technique in a tackle against the Giants in Week 5.

Smith will receive a personal letter from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, plus a $2,500 donation in his name to a high school or youth football program of his choice.

The Vikings safety was recognized for his hit on Evan Engram that forced an incompletion with just over three minutes left in the third quarter.

With the Giants tight end looking for the ball in the middle of the field, Smith powered forward to connect with Engram at the 15-yard line that caused him to drop the ball.

NFL Network analyst (and former Viking wide receiver) Nate Burleson broke down the play, noting how Smith delivered a clean, hard hit that wasn’t dangerous to himself or Engram.

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