Sizing up the intriguing Week 7 matchup between Carson Wentz's 3-2 Eagles and Sam Bradford's 5-0 Vikings:
When the Eagles have the ball
The Eagles didn't have the ball much last Sunday and that was a major reason the offensive was so out of sync. The way that game flowed, the way the loss played out was a perfect illustration of why it's so difficult to predict NFL outcomes. Who foresaw a mediocre running team like Washington gashing a previously stingy Eagles' run defense and controlling the time of possession so handily?
Wentz was just 11 for 22 for 179 yards with no TDs last Sunday, but the struggles were owed more to the aforementioned game flow, the second-string right tackle and all of the penalties than they were to the Redskins' defense.
Whereas this Sunday, if Wentz struggles, it will likely be because of the Vikings' elite defense.
Minnesota is rock solid at all three levels on D. Defensive tackle Linval Joseph and ends Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter and Brian Robison can collapse the pocket. Linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are two of best athletes in the league at their positions. And in the secondary, the ageless Terence Newman has been a lockdown cover man, free safety Harrison Smith is having another All-Pro caliber season, and former first-round cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes have each improved.
The Vikings' defense has been death on opposing receivers, especially No. 1 wideouts. Through five games, the undefeated Vikings have allowed just 59 catches for 627 yards and two TDs to wide receivers. All of those numbers are second-best in the NFL to the Broncos.
Minnesota held Odell Beckham Jr. to three catches for 23 yards, limited Randall Cobb to 42 yards on five catches, held Jordy Nelson to five receptions on 11 targets, shut out Kelvin Benjamin, and kept DeAndre Hopkins catchless until the end of the third quarter of a blowout win.
This is by far the best defense the Eagles have faced. They don't do one thing well, they do everything well. Barr and Kendricks are big-time playmakers who have the speed to cover running backs and tight ends and can also get after the quarterback, but Minnesota's front four has been so solid that the linebackers aren't asked to blitz much.
A lot of times you look at a matchup and see why Zach Ertz and Darren Sproles should be able to get open and play key roles. But this Sunday? You can't just assume either will win his matchups against a Vikings linebacker consistently given the speed and coverage abilities of Barr and Kendricks.
The Vikings have also been excellent at stopping the run. The three best backs they've faced so far — DeMarco Murray, Lamar Miller and Eddie Lacy — combined for 112 yards on 33 carries (3.4 average). Murray did score two receiving touchdowns.
Ryan Mathews' power running style doesn't match up well against the Vikings' physical front. The Eagles would be wise to give some more playing time to Kenjon Barner and Wendell Smallwood, who are more elusive.
The weak link, if there is one, in the Vikings' defense is veteran nickel corner Captain Munnerlyn. He's been targeted 28 times in the slot and allowed 21 catches for 206 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. The only slot corner in the NFL who's allowed more catches is Lamarcus Joyner of the Rams.
That matchup, as well as the pressure that will likely be placed on Wentz, could again lead to a lot targets for Jordan Matthews, who so far has been Wentz's go-to guy and security blanket. At times, Wentz has focused too intently on Matthews, missing open receivers elsewhere. Last week, Wentz had Ertz open downfield a few times but was locked on Matthews.
Against the Vikings, you're going to have to spread the ball around. I've mentioned this in previous scouting reports, but in a game like this it does favor the Eagles to not have a true No. 1 receiver the offense funnels through. When the Vikings played the Giants, they focused on stopping Beckham and letting Eli Manning figure out another way to beat them. He couldn't do it because he's so reliant on OBJ. Same went for the Texans with Brock Osweiler and Hopkins. Those teams don't do a great job of spreading the wealth, whereas Wentz has gotten a lot of pass-catchers involved.
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, the Eagles are going to need to do a better job of helping overmatched right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai. It was borderline inexcusable last week to have Vaitai try to block Ryan Kerrigan by himself early in his first start. Look for Brent Celek or a running back to stay in on obvious passing downs to help chip the defensive end across from Vaitai. Even that might not help. It limits Wentz's throwing options, but it's necessary when you have a clearly inferior right tackle. That may be harsh, but at this point in Big V's career it's true.
When the Vikings have the ball
The Eagles' best, maybe their only way to win this game is by matching the Vikings' defense drive for drive. Bradford has been excellent and efficient this season, averaging 245 yards per game with 70.4 percent completions, six touchdowns and no interceptions, but the Vikings' offense is still toward the bottom of the NFL in many categories.
Minnesota is averaging just 302.6 yards per game, more than only the Rams and 49ers. The Vikings' 2.5 yards-per-carry average is last in the NFL and no other team is below 3.1.
The Vikings have been shorthanded on offense. Adrian Peterson is out a while and left tackle Matt Kalil is done for the season. Minnesota has utilized a two-RB system with Jerick McKinnon getting most of the work between the 20s and Matt Asiata coming in to finish drives. Asiata, who scored three short TDs against the Eagles in that deflating 48-30 loss in 2013, has scored in consecutive weeks.
In the passing game, Bradford's two most-targeted receivers are tight end Kyle Rudolph and second-year WR Stefon Diggs.
Diggs, limited in practice this week with a groin injury, has 25 catches on 33 targets for 372 yards and a TD. He's expected to play Sunday coming off the bye.
Rudolph leads the team with 37 targets and has caught 21 passes for 236 yards and three TDs. He's the only Vikings skill player other than Asiata with multiple TDs. The Vikings move Rudolph all over the place and have him run all types of routes. And we know how much Bradford loves his tight ends.
The Eagles had been the best defense in the NFL against tight ends until Vernon Davis hurt them last week. Rudolph isn't super fast, but he's strong and has good hands so it will still be tough for linebackers like Nigel Bradham and Jordan Hicks to shut him down. Bradford has hit him in the corner of the end zone a few times, placing the ball where only Rudolph can snag it.
Cordarrelle Patterson is an X-factor, a wide receiver with great speed and acceleration who can make big plays but could also finish with zero catches.
If Diggs is feeling close to 100 percent, I expect a big game from him Sunday. He's one of the best receivers in football that people don't talk about. He's fast, makes catches in traffic and has the quick-twitch moves that enable him to gain separation and make things happen after the catch. The Eagles have one of the league's worst cornerback groups, so Diggs could ball out.
You also have to account for the familiarity factor between the Eagles and Bradford. This defense knows better than any what Bradford likes to do in certain situations, how to read his eyes and where he tends to go in key spots. Bradford knows the Eagles' defensive personnel too, but he doesn't know exactly how they'll be deployed because Jim Schwartz wasn't here when he was.
The Eagles' defensive line needs to show up in this one. That unit's poor play in Washington was a shock after how well Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox began the season. With Bennie Logan likely out with a groin injury, it will be up to Cox, Graham and one of Vinny Curry or Connor Barwin to make Bradford feel uncomfortable. Logan is a big, underrated run stuffer who has also shown this season that in a 4-3, he can collapse the pocket and get to the QB. The Eagles will miss him.
Smallwood's kick return TD last week was the first in the NFL this season, and it was nothing new for a unit that has scored often under special teams coordinator Dave Fipp. Teams have to be pretty worried about the Eagles' return units with Sproles and Smallwood and all the capable, experienced blockers, some of whom are here only for their special teams prowess.
Patterson returns kicks for the Vikings and is certainly a threat there. He had four kick return TDs in his first three years.
Kicker Caleb Sturgis continues to do his job for the Eagles, converting 12 of 13 attempts this season.
Vikings kicker Blair Walsh has a huge leg — he was famously 10 for 10 from 50-plus yards as a rookie in 2012 — but he's also had some ridiculously easy misses in his NFL career. It was his 27-yard fail last postseason that eliminated the Vikings, and he's missed six of 49 extra-point attempts since the league moved PATs back.
I foresee a low-scoring game in which the Eagles are more competitive than some might think. But in the end, the Vikings have the personnel and the defensive-minded head coach (Mike Zimmer) to get key stops down the stretch.
Vikings 20, Eagles 16