Vikings vs. Eagles: Key Matchups and X-Factors

Vikings vs. Eagles: Key Matchups and X-Factors

Vikings Barroom Assistant Editor Drew Mahowald breaks down the pivotal Week 7 Vikings vs. Eagles matchup.

Since the last key matchups and x-factors preview written at the Vikings Barroom, the following events have occurred.

  • The Minnesota Vikings have moved to 5-0 after a decisive Week 5 victory at home against the now-4-2 Houston Texans.
  • The Green Bay Packers slipped to 3-2 after losing at home to the Dallas Cowboys, giving the Vikings a two-game lead in the NFC North.
  • The Denver Broncos lost (twice), which leaves Minnesota as the only remaining undefeated team in the NFL.

Minnesota’s bye week couldn’t have come at a better time. Head coach Mike Zimmer’s team limped into the bye week as several key players were dealing with injuries. Additionally, the Vikings acquired former first overall pick Jake Long early in the bye week to allow him time to get accustomed to Norv Turner’s offense.

Over the bye week, players such as Stefon Diggs, Brandon Fusco, Rhett Ellison and Jarius Wright were all back at practice after missing time during the Week 5 contest against Houston due to injuries.

Just two (!) Vikings did not practice on Thursday — tight end MyCole Pruitt and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd. Has the injury bug finally left the Vikings? (*knocks viciously on wood*)

Minnesota’s first test after the bye week is the Philadelphia Eagles, who are coming off two straight road losses after an impressive 3-0 start. Rookie quarterback Carson Wentz has played phenomenal football to begin the season, particularly in a 34-3 home blowout victory over the explosive Pittsburgh Steelers.

Doug Pederson’s West Coast offense has been the perfect fit for Wentz. The former North Dakota State Bison has excelled in the quick-hitting, misdirection-heavy passing attack, throwing for 1,186 yards and seven touchdowns to just one interception and completing 65 percent of passes through five games.

But the biggest difference from 2015 to 2016 for the Eagles is on the defensive side of the ball. Newly-hired defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has installed his aggressive 4-3 defense and it has proved to be an effective change. The attack-heavy scheme has confused the likes of Ben Roethlisberger and Jay Cutler so far this season. However, Schwartz’s defense appeared vulnerable for the first time all season after the Redskins dropped 493 yards on it a week ago.

Sunday’s contest will feature the two of the top four teams in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, which is one of the most respected statistics that measures overall team performance. Minnesota lands first in the stat, while the Eagles rank fourth through Week 6.

As the Vikings match up with the Eagles, a few key matchups and potential x-factors stand out that could have sizable impact in the end result.

Key Matchups

RT Halapoulivaati Vaitai vs. DEs Danielle Hunter/Brian Robison

Philadelphia suffered a big loss when starting right tackle Lane Johnson found out he was suspended for 10 games. Wentz went from having the luxury of a reliable veteran at the right tackle position to an inexperienced fifth-round rookie.

The result of this change in the lineup showed Week 6 against the Washington Redskins. Vaitai was arguably the worst player on the field for the Eagles and let Washington pass-rusher Ryan Kerrigan get to Wentz early and often.

 

 

 

Vaitai played exactly like a fifth-round rookie is expected to. Kerrigan ate him alive all afternoon and the matchup was the driving force behind Philadelphia’s offensive struggles throughout the game.

The most likely fix the Eagles will try to employ is to line up tight end Brent Celek and/or tight end Zach Ertz on that right side to give Vaitai some help. If Philadelphia goes this route, Everson Griffen would wind up in a one-on-one battle with eight-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters for most of the day.

If Pederson decides to not provide aid to Vaitai often on that right side, Danielle Hunter and Brian Robison could be in for big performances on Sunday. Each has recorded four sacks in five games, which ranks tied for 13th in the NFL (despite having already had the bye week).

When Zimmer rolls with the 7Up (seven players on the line of scrimmage, otherwise known as the Double A-Gap or 7-2-2) look in nickel personnel, Robison generally shifts inside while Hunter becomes the outside pass rusher. Look for Minnesota to employ a few twist stunts in passing situations to utilize both Robison and Hunter and confuse the right side of that Eagles offensive line, particularly Vaitai.

RT Jeremiah Sirles vs. DE Brandon Graham

Same positions, different side of the ball. Minnesota has managed an undefeated record despite an extremely crippled offensive line, and a big reason for that is new starting right tackle Jeremiah Sirles.

Sirles stepped in for newly-acquired tackle Andre Smith during Minnesota’s Week 4 contest against the New York Giants. Since then, Sirles has performed among the best on the line, and some would consider the change from Smith to Sirles addition by subtraction. Specifically in Week 5, Sirles handled both Jadaveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus like a pro (the same cannot be said for left tackle T.J. Clemmings).

Eagles pass-rushing extraordinaire Brandon Graham is Sirles’ next test. The 6’1″, 263-pounder uses his low center of gravity and exceptional athleticism to his advantage. His go-to move is the speed rush and it has directly resulted in a couple of sacks this season.

 

 

Of course, Graham’s sack total of three doesn’t tell the whole story. During Philadelphia’s second half comeback attempt against Detroit in a Week 5 matchup, Graham’s initial pressure after side-stepping Detroit right tackle Riley Reiff forced Matthew Stafford to step up into a sack by defensive tackle Bennie Logan.

 

The right side of Minnesota’s offensive line faces a tremendous challenge in Graham and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. The duo has combined for seven sacks on the season, and keeping Bradford upright is always priority one when it comes to the passing attack.

Where Sirles should get the best of Graham is in the running game. Philadelphia is allowing 4.8 yards per rush attempt this season, which ranks third-worst in the NFL. Minnesota’s thunder-and-lightning combo of Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon has struggled to muster consistent yardage so far, but this week’s matchup could change that.

Graham tends to get too aggressive in his attempts to rush the passer, a la Everson Griffen, which leaves gaping running holes available for opposing runners. Additionally, Sirles has earned a run block grade of 88.3 from Pro Football Focus this season, good for third in the NFL.

Whether by air or on the ground, the matchup between Sirles and Graham should have an impact in the final outcome on Sunday.

X-Factors

Vikings X-Factor: LB Eric Kendricks

If Kendricks isn’t the best coverage linebacker in the NFL, he’s certainly in the Top 5. Playing in coverage was a strength for Kendricks coming out of UCLA last year, but nobody expected him to thrive as much as he has in just his second season.

Zimmer’s defensive scheme asks Kendricks to often play a hook zone in passing situations, which generally covers shorter routes over the middle of the field. In Minnesota’s Week 5 matchup against Houston, Kendricks showcased his coverage skills multiple times. Here on a 3rd-and-2 play, the former UCLA Bruin recognizes the Spot concept run by Houston and Kendricks closes quick to knock the pass to DeAndre Hopkins away.

 

Kendricks may be asked to perform a bit more man coverage than in weeks past against the Eagles simply because they boast a number of dynamic pass-catching weapons. Both Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood are explosive both with and without the ball in their hands and Wentz will undoubtedly look to them on Sunday.

Minnesota hasn’t relied a ton on Kendricks’ man coverage skills thus far, but that doesn’t mean he can’t match up man-to-man with the most athletic receiving backs in the NFL. Just ask Lamar Miller.

With Miller flanked to the right and running a flat route while Kendricks lines up in the Double A-Gap look, Osweiler thought the hot route to Miller was a no-brainer. Wrong. Kendricks’ insane speed and recognition allowed him to break up the would-be first down pass.

 

Pederson’s West Coast offense calls for an abundance of shorter throws over the middle with some play-action concepts mixed in. In other words, Wentz will likely be throwing in Kendricks’ territory often on Sunday, whether that be to Sproles and Smallwood, tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz or slot receiver Jordan Matthews.

Another solid performance from Kendricks will only increase Minnesota’s chances of moving to 6-0 for the first time since 2009.

Eagles X-Factor: WR Jordan Matthews

Sam Bradford’s former top target Jordan Matthews is without a doubt Wentz’s top target. Through five games, Matthews has been targeted 37 times, catching 22 balls for 344 yards and a couple of touchdowns.

Matthews has amassed most of those yards from the slot, which is where he lines up almost exclusively when Philadelphia brings out three wide receivers. Lining up in the slot gives Matthews some favorable matchups against opposing slot cornerbacks and safeties, and he has taken advantage this season.

 

 

At 6’3″ and 212 pounds, Matthews is larger than the typical slot receiver. This poses a matchup problem for the Vikings. Will their top cornerback Xavier Rhodes shadow Matthews and cover from the slot for the first time in his career? Will Minnesota stick with 5’9″ Captain Munnerlyn in the slot, despite the size disadvantage? Or will Zimmer employ second-year man Trae Waynes in the slot against Matthews, whose 6’0″ frame poses less of a size mismatch?

It’s one of the most fascinating dynamics of Sunday’s matchup. Minnesota had success against big receivers Week 3 against Carolina, shutting down Cam Newton’s passing attack while Kelvin Benjamin was held without a catch. Benjamin did line up in the slot at times, but he certainly didn’t to the frequency Matthews will this weekend.

If there’s one advantage Philadelphia has in matching up with Minnesota, it’s Matthews in the slot. Expect Pederson to formulate a game plan that gives Wentz the best chance to get Matthews the ball early and often.

Prediction

Minnesota comes into Week 7 leading the NFL in a number of significant NFL defensive categories — points allowed per game (12.6), points allowed per drive (1.12), turnover differential (+11), yards per pass attempt allowed (6.0) and opposing passer rating (65.3).

The Eagles’ offensive attack doesn’t surpass anything the Vikings have faced to this point and it’s more than reasonable to assume Zimmer’s defensive success will continue, especially off the bye week and against a rookie quarterback.

On the other side of the ball, Philadelphia’s defense is one of the better units the Vikings have matched up with to this point. Jim Schwartz’s attacking 4-3 unit boasts a couple of elite players in Fletcher Cox and Malcom Jenkins as well as a number of very good supporting players.

However, after surrendering nearly 500 yards of offense to Washington last week, the Eagles appear vulnerable while Minnesota’s offense has only progressed throughout the season as Sam Bradford builds chemistry with receivers.

Vikings move to 6-0 and further cement their status as the team to beat in the NFC.

Vikings 27, Eagles 13

Be sure to check out the latest episode of About The Labor: A Minnesota Vikings podcast. The Vikings-Eagles preview episode will be available Friday!

 

Drew Mahowald

Drew Mahowald

Drew Mahowald is a student at Saint John's University (MN) pursuing a degree in media communications and a career in sports media. In addition to serving as an assistant editor at the Barroom, Drew also writes about the Minnesota Timberwolves for OnTheProwlMN.com. You can follow Jim Kleinsasser's #1 fan on Twitter at @DrewMahowald.



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