More Sports:

January 16, 2018

Schwartz: Key to stopping the Vikings on third down is winning first and second down

On Monday, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson talked about the "daunting task" his offense is facing against the top-ranked Vikings defense in this weekend's NFC Championship Game. 

Minnesota, which beat the Saints in a walk-off thriller on Sunday night, doesn't force a ton of turnovers, but the Viking defense is lights-out on third down, holding opponents to an NFL-best 25.2 percent success rate.

Against the Eagles, however, Minnesota will be facing a team that's nearly as good, especially on third and long. 

3rd & 1-4 42 1.90 6.04 19 45.2
3rd & 4-6 52 4.90 7.11 24 46.2
3rd & 7-9 47 7.89 7.44 13 27.7
3rd & 10+ 65 13.80 11.98 10 15.4

Clearly, but not surprisingly, there's a direct correlation between how many yards opponents need to gain and how successful they are on third down. And it's not something unique to the Eagles, it's just that they've been really good at limiting opponents on first and second down, thus forcing them into third and long situations. 

But the success of the Eagles defense is about more than that, according to defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.

"I think that can certainly help it," he said Tuesday. "Obviously, the percentage goes down for the offense the longer it is. But we're a pretty good rush team, we're a little bit surgical on our blitzes – we don't blitz a lot but when we do, they've been pretty effective. We don't make a lot of mental mistakes. We're a pretty good tackling team. 

"If you put those things together, you've got a pretty good chance to hold teams – listen, our guys do a great job of preparing and understanding what they're defending and how they're going to defend it. I think that has a lot to do with it."

One of the things Schwartz's defense will be preparing for this week is an offense that's among the best in the league on third down. That's right; their offense is nearly as good at converting on third down as their defense is at making stops. 

Overall this season, the Vikings are 43.5 percent overall on third down, good for third in the NFL. (By comparison, the Eagles offense is ranked eighth at 41.7 percent, but is just 9-for-38, or 23.7 percent, over the last three games.)

"[Case Keenum] has played outstanding at the quarterback position, and they've got a lot of good players around him, too," Schwartz said. "They've run the ball really well. They're a little bit – I mad a big deal last week about how if you combine the running back totals [for Falcons RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman], that would be an All-Pro player. These guys [Latavius Murray and Jerrick McKinnon] aren't that far off of it. And they lost potentially their best running back in Dalvin Cook early in the season.

"I think they've done a good job on first and second down [and] that's taken them to third [and short]. [Adam] Thielen took a big jump to being a Pro-Bowl player. You know, [WR Stefon] Diggs, [TE Kyle] Rudolph. They roll about five deep at wide receiver and all those guys have a role. And the quarterback is a smart veteran player that knows where to go with the ball [and] hasn't made a lot of mistakes."

As Schwartz alluded to, however, third down might not actually be as important as what happens on the two plays prior. If the Eagles do their job on first and second down (and can limit Minnesota to only a couple of yards, which hasn't been easy this year), there's a good chance they'll be able to get off the field on third down. 

For as good as the Vikings have been on third and short, they've been just as bad on third and long. 

3rd & 1-61207360.8%
3rd & 7+972121.6%

Over their last three games, the Eagles have held their opponents to an average of 8.67 points per game – and the ability to stop opponents on third down and prevent them from going on long, time-consuming drives has been key. 

Is Schwartz's defense is peaking at just the right time?

"We'll see on Sunday," he said.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin

Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports