Updated: May 3, 2019
In a rematch of last season's NFC Championship game, the 38-7 2-2 Eagles play host to the 1-2-1 Minnesota Vikings on Sunday at 4:25PM ET.
It is a common view in today's NFL that the performance of a team in the first quarter of the regular season should be, for lack of a better word, thrown out. That due to the constraints of the league's current collective bargaining agreement (CBA), teams simply do not have enough contact with their players during the offseason, or enough padded practice time during the preseason, to properly develop their scheme and personnel. Compounding this issue is that the CBA's rookie wage scale has also led to a league-wide trend of younger, cheaper and more inexperienced players contributing at key positions across the NFL- a topic The Ringer's Kevin Clark has discussed extensively. It is argued that as a result, the first month of the NFL regular season is essentially just an extended preseason. A time where scorelines can appear absurd (the Vikings losing a game to a Bills team in which they were 17 point favorites) and statistics seem skewed (Ryan Fitzpatrick passing for 401 yards and 4 touchdowns against the Eagles defense).
Ask either fan base, I assure you most will be happy to 'throw out' their rocky starts to the season which have failed to live up to expectations. Let's look at two key matchups for Sunday's NFC blockbuster:
Diggs & Thielen vs. the Eagles Secondary
It's been a rough week for many members of the Eagles secondary unit that surrendered 344 yards to Tennessee's Marcus Mariota en route to an upset OT loss last week. CB Jalen Mills struggled mightily in coverage, giving up four catches for 89 yards and a touchdown to Titans WR Corey Davis. The stat line would have looked even worse for Mills had Mariota's not overthrown a wide open Davis on a long post route. Behind him, FS Corey Graham did not play well filling in for the injured Rodney McLeod. I'm not going to post the video of Graham's brain explosion on the 4th and 15 OT picket fence defensive play because I'm sick of it seeing myself, but it was not the only missed assignment from him on the day. Whilst these two received the lion's share of the blame, other members of the secondary such as Ronald Darby put in a poor pass-coverage and tackling performance that must be improved moving forward.
The Vikings possess a receiving corps (and a quarterback in Kirk Cousins who can deliver a more accurate long ball) with much more to fear. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are arguably the most talented wide-receiving duo in the league. Corralling in 155 catches, 2125 yards and 12 combined TDs in 2017, the pair have already amassed a 67 / 784 / 5 line in 4 games this year. Against an Eagles unit that has surrendered 6 touchdowns to the wide receiver position over the past 3 weeks, it will not be surprising to see Cousins targeting them deep and often. Receivers have found recent success against Mills using double-moves on the outside. The battle between the Vikings' ball-catching talent and what will be an emotional Eagles' secondary, keen to prove they still have what it takes to contend in a stacked NFC conference, will certainly be one to watch.
The Eagles Pass Rush vs. The Vikings Pass Protection
The success of the Eagles defense in stopping the run in 2018 has been well-documented. Allowing just 63.8 yards per game at an average of 3.4 yards per attempt ranks the team at #1 for rushing defense by total yards and #3 for rushing defense by DVOA per Football Outsiders.
The pass rush however, has been a different story. Whilst DT Fletcher Cox would be garnering early Defensive Player of the Year buzz if it wasn't for Chicago's Khalil Mack averaging a strip sack a game, other members of the defensive line have not been as effective. Despite playing in over 62% of defensive snaps, Super Bowl hero DE Brandon Graham has only one recorded QB hit and has yet to register a sack across 4 games, whilst free agent signing Michael Bennett is reportedly unhappy with his role within the unit and his lack of playing time. The Eagles will be without DE Derek Barnett on Sunday, who will have to put his impressive start to his sophomore campaign on hold due to a shoulder injury.
The good news is that the Vikings offensive line just might act as the spark to get the Eagles' pressure machine revving once again:
If Diggs, Thielen and Rudolph are given time for their routes to develop down field, it will be very tough for a struggling Eagles secondary to contain them. It is imperative for Cox, Bennett, Ngata and Long to put Cousins on his back (without drawing a flag) throughout the match to alleviate the pressure behind them.