The Minnesota Vikings offense, fresh off of a miraculous comeback against a tough New Orleans Saints defense, now has another difficult task ahead of them in the formidable Philadelphia Eagles.
Arguably, this job is even more difficult; the Eagles defense ranks fourth in points allowed per drive, fourth in turnovers per drive and fifth in defensive success rate — a statistic that measures the ability of a team to create or prevent first downs.
The Eagles defense is fifth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, fourth in points allowed, fifth in adjusted net yards per passing attempt allowed and second in scores allowed per drive.
The New Orleans defense, when healthy, put up similar numbers but wasn’t quite as productive — so dismantling this group is going to be tougher. Not only that, many offenses strategize around defenses by attacking the weakest link, a difficult task given the overall quality throughout the roster.
But the Eagles defense isn’t invulnerable. They’ve given up 35 points to the Los Angeles Rams, 29 to the New York Giants and 27 to the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Vikings have an opportunity to do even more.
The Eagles defense isn’t constructed to be particularly complex, though they’ve grown in complexity over time as defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has added blitzes and stunts to an otherwise vanilla defense.
Instead, they’re built from the inside out, with incredible interior talent on early downs and a dominant pass-rushing force on third and long. That ability to generate pressure gives the secondary additional leeway when covering receivers and they’ve used that to create turnovers and shut down big plays again and again.
Luckily for the Vikings and their talented receiving corps, the solution to one problem — a prodigious pass rush — might also be the solution to the other problem — that opportunistic defensive backfield.
The most effective way to create yards against the Philadelphia Eagles defense is to let receivers do after-catch work and force defensive backs to make tackles. The statistical indicators of the Eagles’ vulnerability to after-catch mavens are substantial.
Their cornerbacks have allowed the most yards-after-catch of any team in the league by a large margin, and that’s just the beginning.
The Eagles have allowed 40 passing plays during the regular season that have gone for 20 yards are more, the fifth-lowest in the league. But out of all teams, they’ve had the highest proportion of those plays come on short passes (fewer than 15 yards in the air) featuring after-catch work from the receivers.
|Team||Percentage of Big Plays Coming on Short Passes|
They’ve allowed the sixth-most such plays — passing plays that go for over 20 yards, but travel fewer than fifteen yards in the air.
Part of this is because of the difficulties their cornerbacks have had tackling ballcarriers. They’ve missed the fifth-most tackles per tackling attempt of any team’s cornerback corps.
The other part is how often they play off coverage in order to prevent big plays.
Even when they do show press, they don’t always jam at the line of scrimmage, which allows for some clean releases on those short throws.
Not only that, the Eagles are very comfortable with man coverage, and are vulnerable to the same crossers and rub routes that the Vikings attacked the Saints so well with last week. On the play below, Mohamed Sanu gets wide open exploiting that weakness.
The entire game can’t be built on short throws, but it does give us a template for how the Vikings might want to attack Philadelphia. The Vikings definitely have the personnel for it — Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Jerick McKinnon are all fantastic players after the catch and can make teams pay for giving them space.
Not only that, Pat Elflein is already one of the best centers in the league when it comes to blocking on screens and other short passes. The offensive line, in general, has done well when asked to block in space, and this would be a good opportunity to test their mettle in that arena once more.
The Vikings rank seventh in big plays from short passes, and much of that has to do with how well McKinnon (who ranks sixth of all NFL players in big plays from short passes) and Thielen (twelfth) have done when called upon in those scenarios.
This strategy also avoids some of the issues that come up on deeper throws, where Keenum’s passes are less accurate and have a chance of being intercepted.
Most of his near-interception opportunities have come on deep or intermediate throws — like many quarterbacks — and the Eagles are opportunistic on those plays. They rank fourth in the NFL in completion rate allowed on deep passes, and tenth in interception rate.
For the Vikings, it makes sense to throw short and let playmakers make plays.