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2017 NFC Championship Game Preview

Matt Weston takes a shot at previewing the NFC Championship Game.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Los Angeles Rams Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been almost a week. I still can’t believe it. Let’s watch it again.

Whew. I’m sweating. I lost $200 on that game and I’m not even mad. I can’t stop watching it. P.S. I don’t have a problem with the coverage call. Marcus Williams just missed the play, which is such a shame because he had a great season, and was a war hawk in this game.

That miraculous miracle is what it took for the Vikings to get the chance to play the Philadelphia Eagles. And for lots of reasons it seems like it won’t take some last second, say your prayers, you won’t believe it, I can’t believe it, oMg play for the Vikings to advance again.

When considering the entire season both these teams are evenly matched. Both have great defenses. Philadelphia’s is based around their defensive line and Minnesota’s is more of an all around effort. They can run the ball alright. Both have good offensive lines, the Eagles is better though. Each team has good pass catchers, but the Vikings have better receivers. Things are even.

The big difference is the quarterback position. Since losing Carson Wentz, Nick Foles has completed 57 of 101 passes (56.4%) for 537 yards. He’s thrown 5 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Ok. Fine considering the situation. The problem is Foles can only throw short. He’s averaging 5.3 yards an attempt. His QBR is 31.4, and his DVOA is -28.5%. It’s impossible to have numbers that sink that low with the touchdown interception ratio he has. It’s a result of Foles being bad, and Doug Pederson limiting the offense as much as possible to put the game in the shoulder pads and helmets of his defense.

Foles was praised last weekend for scoring 15 points against a fast Atlanta Falcons’ defense that ultimately under performed the entire year. He was an old man wearing a baseball uniform last week. He completed 23 of his 30 attempts for 246 yards, threw 0 touchdowns and 0 interceptions, and was a sack away from having a clean sheet.

The Eagles’ game plan against Atlanta was simple. Run the ball with their spectacular offensive line to chew up a smaller Atlanta front, and take advantage of the Falcons’ cover three defense by getting the ball out quickly in the flat.

These plays are read-pass options in the dictionary only. There really isn’t an option here. Foles isn’t handing it off. He’s carrying out an exaggerated play fake and taking advantage of deep presnap coverage.

Against Minnesota’s defense this won’t fly. The Vikings aren’t creative with their corner backs. It’s a lot of press man with Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes with Terrance Newman and Mackensie Alexander in supporting roles. Then they’ll cover the middle of the field with their linebackers—they really enjoy using Michael Kendricks to cover running backs.

Where they get creative is with their safeties. Both Andrew Sendejo and Harrison Smith can play from the center of the field to the sideline. Mike Zimmer has them roll over towards both sidelines, and will pull them into the box to blitz against the run and the pass.

Smith is the house hold name. But Sendejo is a playmaker too. Last weekend he did the Ed Reed-Peyton Manning interception by faking coverage against one deep receiver and then flipping back over to the other. This is the type of play that made Bill Belichick and Tom Brady poop their pants.

These quick little throws won’t work against them. Fast slants off anaconda play fakes are going to be tackled immediately or batted down. Foles won’t be getting empty meadows to play catch in. He has to be precise and sharp. All he’s going to get are minuscule targets.

The Eagles are going to have to pull Foles out of a quarterback cemetery and try to resurrect some of that 2013 voodoo when he averaged 9.1 yards an attempt and threw 27 touchdowns to 2 interceptions. He is going to have to do a lot more than he did last week, and will need to make some downfield throws with they present themselves to him.

The trouble is that it’s really hard to get open against the Vikings, and it’s really hard to complete passes even when you get open. Their man coverage is nasty. It’s a struggle and a constant headache to fight through.

This is a terrible match up for Foles. He can’t complete passes to his wide receivers. He has predominantly relied on Zach Ertz with some quick throws to Nelson Agholor sprinkled in. The Vikings have a defensive DVOA of -23.9% against tight ends. And Ertz is an awful run blocker. Not only will he struggle to get open, but he stands no chance blocking Hunter or Griffen. They’ll have to line up Ertz in the slot to get him catches.

Eagles top five receivers with Nick Foles via Pro Football Reference

Foles issues don’t end with himself and his receivers, they continue with his offensive line. Four fifths of his offensive line is spectacular. Stefen Wisinewski, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, and Lane Johnson are great players and among the best at their positions. The boil on the back of the bus driver’s neck is their left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai. He’s come a long way. He’s no longer unplayable. He’s good in space, and is a good outside zone blocking tackle. The problem is pass protection.

In this football game he’s going to be matched up against Everson Griffen all game long. Griffen is one of the game’s premier pass rushers. This season he had 41 pressures and 13 sacks. He’ll be able to bull rush through Vitai, and will be able to constantly spin around him.

Whenever Philly tries to stretch the Earth they must help out Vitai in this situation with chips, or by leaving the back on that side of the formation.

It’s a conflicting decision though. Whenever they do this it will open up rushes for Anthony Barr and Smith whenever they blitz, and could make things easier for the opposite defensive end, Danielle Hunter, who had 40 hurries and 7 sacks this season.

The Eagles will have to rely on the screen game to create easy throws for Foles and get their craftsmen in space. Because of the man coverage Minnesota plays, and the depth of their safeties, they can be eaten up by these plays. Good news. The Eagles are one of the best teams in the league at screeching down field like this.

Although the Eagles’ offensive line is great, they haven’t been a great run team this year. They have a run offense DVOA of -6.2%, which is 17th. They are going to struggle running the ball up the middle against Minnesota. Their inside run scheme involves a lot of pulling, and power plays. Sorts of things that don’t work very well against monstrous defensive tackles, and well coached players.

By doubling and putting so much effort on the playside defensive tackle it creates one v. one blocks for Danielle Hunter and Griffen to feast on. Also a lot of these plays involve blocking down on the defensive tackle with the center. Kelce is incredible, but you don’t want anyone blocking Linval Joseph one on one.

If Philly runs the ball well it’s going to be because they were able to bounce things wide with outside zone plays, and Jay Ajayi making some ridiculous runs. These are both things than can happen. The Eagles run to the edge 50% of the time, and Ajayi is ridiculous personified. He’s averaging 5.8 yards a carry compared to the 4.3 and 4.4 yards a carry LaGarette Blount and Corey Clement have picked up. Ajayi is a shapeshifting druid who is 1000% their best runner.

Additionally, the Eagles have to do well on first and second down. They must limit the number of third downs they face. Even third and one is a nearly impossible task against this defense. Minnesota has a defensive DVOA of -43.4% on third down and teams are converting on third down only 25.12% of the time. It’s absurd.

If Wentz was around I would be two beers that I’m not drinking away from picking Philadelphia. He has the ability to throw downfield, stand in against a pass rush and maneuver around it, and score touchdowns in the redzone. But because it’s Foles against one of the five best pass defenses in football, I don’t think there’s a chance the Eagles could score more 17 points in this game. And if they do hit that upper limit, it’s going to be because of a lot of master game planning from their head coach, and advantageous situations given to them by their defense and special teams.

Unlike the Eagles, the Vikings have an actual pass offense. Case Keenum has been elite this season. He led the league in DVOA with 28.2%, he had a DYAR of 1,298, which was fourth, and averaged 7.4 yards an attempt. All season long he hit crossing routes and delivered beautiful high soaring plastic bag throws to his great route running wide receivers.

Like Foles, Keenum is in for a hellacious challenge. As good as Minnesota’s defense is, Philadelphia’s is a little bit better. Like previous Jim Schwartz defenses, it’s all about their defensive line.

The Eagles constantly rotate in defensive linemen and never have a piece of rotten fruit on display. Their core four is Vinny Curry, Fletcher Cox, Timmy Jernigan, and Brandon Graham. Then on pass downs they will play Cox and Graham on the inside and run Chris Long and Derek Barnett on the edge.

The hardest part of running against the Eagles is Cox. He is a master at taking on double teams and still making the tackle. He perfectly attacks the first blocker, and swallows him up. This makes it impossible for the second blocker to cover him up, which gives him the opportunity to make a play on the ball. And even if he does get driven back, or can’t make the tackle, he’s usually able to hang on long enough for one of his teammates to come in and take care of the rest.

In addition to constantly rotating in defensive linemen the Eagles use a variety of players in the box. It’s very European. They have a lot of different noses sniffing around the pot.

Their linebackers are great at cleaning things up too once the clock strikes two. Michael Hendricks is long and lanky and is a player, and Nigel Bradham is an old school between the tackles run stopper who led the team in tackles this season.

Minnesota’s run offense is aight. Their offensive line is solid. The biggest problem is that they are inconsistent. On one play Mike Remmers, Riley Reiff, and Joe Berger will move the line of scrimmage in unison.

And on the next play center Berger will over extend on the double, and miss the ‘Mike’ linebacker, which evaporates any chance of a successful gain. Your army is only as fast as its slowest member. The Vikings are no different. It’s one missed block that usually hurts their rushing attack.

The Vikings were best at running the ball over the tackles, not up the middle. It will also be interesting to see if they leave Remmers at left guard to play next to Reiff or if they move him to the other side of the line of scrimmage and back to right tackle. Even if they have Remmers at left guard, it’s going to be thorny running the ball up the middle against Cox and Jernigan.

The difference between this version of the Eagles and previous incarnations that Schwartz has coached is that the Eagles actually blitz. Schwartz used to be conservative and rarely brought extra defenders. It was always rush four down linemen and drop seven in coverage. Now the Eagles are blitzing linebackers and defensive backs to exacerbate their pass rush. Defensive backs have contributed 12.5 pressures to their pressure rate of 32.5%. Schwartz rarely called blitzes like this before.

The key member of that blitzing secondary is their safety Malcom Jenkins. Like Smith, he’s a center fielder, run stopping masher, and back breaking blitzer. The Eagles will use him in every way they can, and he’s great at every aspect of the position.

The rest of Philly’s secondary is fine. They don’t have a lockdown corner. Jalen Mills is their best corner, and he’s good, but he’s not someone that locks down a third of the field. They aren’t like Minnesota. They aren’t going to play press man coverage. Instead the Eagles will sit off and bait Minnesota to throw short and come down to tackle. The Vikings are going to struggle to throw their world famous crossing routes.

When deeper routes are run they’ll have their safeties back there to help. Like last week, Keenum will need to put his ELITE trait to use, and unleash those long arching plastic bag throws to Adam Theilen and Stefon Diggs.

But what’s an easy matchup on paper, isn’t statistically. The Eagles are seventh and second in defensive DVOA when covering number one and number two receivers. A lot of this is because of the safety help they provide. It’s going to be up to Keenum to manipulate the safeties and make the throws he’s made all season.

And even if this doesn’t happen. Even if Keenum struggles, even if Philly is able to rush the passer, and even if those deep throws hit the ground, I still like Minnesota. That’s how bad Foles has been, and how bad of a match up it is for him. He’s going up against a great defense that is perfect for stopping him. They won’t allow him to throw short and to the receivers he likes. He’ll have to deal with pressure from his blind side. The Vikings can be held to 17 points and would still be the favorite to win this game. Because of the difference in quarterback play, I’m going:

Vikings 20, Eagles 12.