January 15, 2018
You never want your favorite team to "beat itself," especially this late in the season when the stakes are so high. But that might be just what the Philadelphia Eagles will need to do on Sunday if they hope to advance to Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis.
That's because the Eagles will face the Minnesota Vikings, a team that has a ton in common with the Birds in the NFC Championship Game.
Offensively, both teams are on their backup quarterbacks – Nick Foles and Case Keenum, who not too long ago was Foles' backup with the Rams – and have had to deal with major injuries this season. In the backfield, they both utilize running-back-by-committee and each likes to get those backs involved in the passing game. Speaking of passing games, both teams like to spread the ball around, and while they'll take shots down the field, they're also perfectly content throwing underneath (often to their talented tight ends) and chipping away at the opposing defense.
When Carson Wentz was healthy, the Eagles offense was a different animal, but with Foles at the helm, the Birds have looked more and more like their upcoming opponent.
"It's pretty similar: run, play-action and screen," Pederson said of the Vikings offense on Monday. "That's what they do [and] that's what we've done the last couple weeks. The other thing you're seeing too – and in our case too, we were able to do much better on first and second down, and help us out on third down the other night; I think [we were] 43 percent. Those are the things that you see Minnesota do. And their success on first down keeps them on third and manageable."
Part of the reason those similarities exist is Pat Shurmur, who spent the first 10 years of his professional coaching career as an Eagles assistant, including his first season as the tight ends coach in 1999, the year Pederson lost his starting job in Philly to a rookie named Donovan McNabb. Shurmur also spent three seasons in Philly as the offensive coordinator under Chip Kelly and helped coach Foles to that 27-touchdown, two-interception season in 2013.
Now, in his second season as the Vikings offensive coordinator, Shurmur will return to Philly on Sunday to face his former team – and some of his former players – at Lincoln Financial Field. And while the Vikings defense gets a lot of the attention (more on that in a minute), Pederson knows you can't sleep on Shurmur's offense.
"I go all the way back to 1999 with Pat when he was our tight end coach here in Philadelphia," Pederson said. "He's smart; he's obviously been a head coach in this league, a coordinator in this league; he's done an outstanding job with Minnesota the last couple of years; and he understands defense, meaning he's putting guys in positions to be successful, particularly that quarterback.
"It's been kind of fun to watch him and watch what they've done offensively this season as well."
On the other hand, watching this Vikings defense couldn't have been much fun for Pederson, especially knowing that Foles and the rest of his offense will have to get through them if they want to win their first NFC title since 2005. As they have for much of the season, Minnesota ranks first in the NFL in yards allowed and points against.
So what has made them so tough?
"Listen, they've been together no for a few years, so this group is playing with a lot of confidence, a lot of speed, not a lot of mistakes," Pederson said. "It's a scheme where they just basically say, 'Hey, line up and come after us and try to beat us.' And that's what you see on tape. It's a daunting task for us this week."
That being said, the Eagles have a dominant defense of their own, currently ranking fourth in the NFL in yards allowed, points against and takeaways, and ranks first in rushing yards allowed. But where the Vikings really excel is on third down, where they're holding opponents to a league-best 25.2 percent conversion rate.
The Eagles rank third (32.2 pct.), but no one is really close to Minnesota in that category.
"It's just a smothering defense," Pederson said of the Vikings. "[No.] 97 [Everson Griffen] is a game-wrecker; you've got to try to pass-protect him. You get to third down and they'll pressure you a little bit, they play man coverage – the thing is they just mix it in and you just don't know necessarily what's coming. It just comes down to your execution. That's what you're seeing with this [Vikings] team. The speed of the D-line getting to the quarterback and then just playing man coverage on the back end. [Xavier] Rhodes is a tremendous corner, safeties are playing extremely well, so it's a good group on third down."
As Pederson alluded to earlier, the Eagles were much better against the Falcons than they had been on third down because they were able to stay ahead of the sticks and get positive yardage on first and second down. They'll need to keep that up this week if they have any hopes of advancing to the Super Bowl.
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