EAGAN — On Sunday the Minnesota Vikings will have an opportunity to prove that they can put together a solid offensive performance against a dangerous defense.
While the Philadelphia Eagles may be dinged up in the secondary, they have one of the most impressive defensive lines in the NFL. They rank third in QB hits and second in “QB Knockdown percentage” per Pro-Football Reference and posted 10 sacks last week against the New York Jets.
“Great combination of scheme and players,” offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski said. “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 and then the players, you could name every single one of them, honestly. I think Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham, what they bring to the table is really a special group.”
Overall against the pass the Eagles rank 16th in net yards per pass attempt and have the 17th best cover unit per PFF grades.
“They’ve changed a little bit coverage-wise in some of the things that they’re doing, and I’m guessing it’s to help protect those guys a little bit,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “I think they’re going to get some guys back, so we’ll just have to see if they stick with some of the same coverages or they go back to what they typically do. We’re going to have to be prepared for both.”
Clearly Philly has done its damage up front, which isn’t much different from 2018 when they were also second in QB Knockdown percentage but graded mid-pack in coverage.
Last year the Vikings had one of their most impressive passing performances on the road in Week 5 against a very similar Eagles unit. Kirk Cousins went 30-for-37 with one touchdown, just one sack and 301 yards, good for a 109.6 rating and 80.4 (of 100) grade from PFF.
It was also the type of big-game output that Cousins has been criticized for not putting together enough. Repeating it on Sunday may act as a slingshot for the offense, which has been under the microscope since a 16-6 loss in Chicago in Week 4.
What can the Vikings offense take away from last year’s 23-21 win over the Eagles? Let’s have a look…
Diggs the playmaker
In total Stefon Diggs came away with 10 receptions on 11 targets for 91 yards, 57 of which came after the catch (per PFF).
John DeFilippo’s scripted plays included some simple and some clever ways to get the ball in Diggs’ hands. On the game’s second play, Cousins spotted off coverage from the Eagles cornerback and whipped the ball into Diggs’ hands for a 6-yard gain (clip 1). On another play, the Vikings used a cut split with Laquon Treadwell acting as a lead blocker for another 6-yard gain (clip 3).
On the creative side, the star receiver used “orbit motion” in which he came behind Cousins pre-snap and then caught a screen pass for another short gain. Later in the game an underneath throw to Diggs turned into 25 yards when the Eagles defenders bit on a zone run play-action look (clip 4). He also took a sweep around the edge for another explosive play.
Diggs has rarely been used in this manner in 2019. His average depth of target in ’18 was 8.9 yards, per NFLNextGEN. This year that number has jumped up to 13.5 yards through the air on average.
Changing that up might help the Vikings mitigate the pass rush as they did last season.
While Kyle Rudolph has talked about putting his focus into blocking, he is strongest when he’s moving the chains in the passing game. This year the Pro Bowl tight end has only managed six receptions on eight targets, a stunningly low number for a receiver who has averaged 63 receptions per season over the last four years.
In the victory at Philly he caught five passes on five targets for 41 yards. It wasn’t exactly a banner day but averaging 8.2 yards per play makes for group of successful plays in his direction.
And they were all classy Rudolph plays. He sat down in the middle of a zone for seven yards, caught a quick pass in the red zone for eight yards and had an 18-yard gain on a screen that turned out to be the dagger on the Eagles’ chances.
Because throws to Rudolph have such a high rate of completion (over 70% each of the last two years) his targets are generally efficient plays (even if they aren’t often explosive).
This could be a week in which we see a vintage Rudolph game.
In many ways DeFilippo had the “don’t go broke taking a profit” mentality in the win over his former team. Cousins got the ball out of his hands quickly, going 25-for-28 on throws under 10 yards. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t make plays. Cousins was still pressured 18 times on 41 drop backs and posted an outstanding 134.1 rating on those throws. He was blitzed nine times and shredded the Eagles when they sent extra rushers going 7-for-9 with 121 yards.
Cousins made several throws that were nothing short of spectacular. On the opening drive he hit Adam Thielen with an off-balance throw for 24 yards off play-action with a rusher in his face (clip 1). On the big gain from Diggs underneath he was asked to quickly release the ball to avoid the rush. And he had possibly his best throw of the year, a bomb from his own end zone with Fletcher Cox coming down on him. Thielen caught the accurate throw for 68 yards.
There haven’t been enough games from Cousins in which his teammates walk away thinking he is the $84 million quarterback brought in to beat good teams but 2018’s victory over Philadelphia showed it isn’t outside of his capabilities.
If the Vikings succeed in the short passing game by letting Diggs make plays after the catch, allowing Rudolph to “make a profit” on short throws and get a big-time game from Cousins under pressure, they can repeat the ’18 game and come away from Sunday with a win.