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Who would've thought two months ago, after the grotesque injury to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater that the Vikings would be the last unbeaten team in the NFL? And who would've thought Sam Bradford would be leading Minnesota into Lincoln Financial Field to take on the Eagles?
Obviously, we're very familiar with Bradford after he helped guide the Eagles to a 7-9 record in 2015. The rest of the Vikings, maybe not so much. This is a team that quietly went 11-5 last season, and not so quietly were a missed 27-yard field goal away against the Seahawks from advancing to the divisional round of the playoffs.
For a team this good, the talent on the roster doesn't necessarily receive a ton of attention, particularly on what is arguably the toughest defense in the entire league. Time to rectify that and take a closer look at what the Vikings bring to the table.
Quarterback: Sam Bradford
As we've been saying around these parts for the past year and a half, if you put a team around Bradford, he can win. That's not exactly a glowing endorsement of the former No. 1 overall pick, although it is true. The Vikings offense may be ranked 30th, but Bradford has the highest completion rate in the NFL at 70.4 percent and is second in the league with 109.7 passer rating. This isn't even a matter of him having great weapons either, although wide receiver Stefon Diggs and tight end Kyle Rudolph are pretty good. Behind a stellar defense, Bradford doesn't have to put the entire team on his shoulders, which explains why he hasn't thrown an interception and only been sacked eight times in four games. Based on what we've seen of Carson Wentz and the return they got in the trade with the Vikings, it's hard to fault the Eagles for going in the direction they chose. Clearly Bradford can win though.
This might seem like another backhanded compliment, and to a large degree it is, because the Vikings offense isn't very good. Yet to their credit, the unit has kept mistakes to an extreme minimum. The Vikings have committed one turnover this season, which is incredible when you think about it. The Eagles are the only other team with fewer than four giveaways, and the combined record of teams with no more than five is 39-18. It's a truly remarkable stat, and just goes to show if the defense can't create turnovers, the Vikings are going to be almost impossible to beat.
Weakness: Ground attack
The Vikings offense isn't particularly dynamic at any position or area, but the unit ranks dead last in the run. Even when Adrian Peterson was healthy, the seven-time Pro Bowler was averaging an anemic 1.6 yards per carry in two games this season. The combination of Jerrick McKinnon and Matt Asiata haven't fared a lot better, rushing 93 times for 273 yards — a 2.9 average — with three touchdowns. Injuries along the offensive line haven't helped matters, with starting tackles Matt Kalil and Andre Smith both landing on the reserve list already. Nonetheless, the Vikings have never quite figured out how to run the ball in 2016, which has been without a doubt this team's greatest shortcoming.
Strength: Pass defense
What came first, the chicken or the egg? It's nearly impossible to field a lockdown secondary without a great pass-rush, and what the defensive line lacks in name recognition, it certainly makes up for in production. Three Vikings players are tied for the clubhouse lead with 4.0 sacks, including Everson Griffen, who's heading for double digits for the third straight season. Only two teams have made more visits to the quarterback, so they are rock solid up front. Of course, only three teams have more interceptions than the Vikings, so they equally as dangerous on the back end. Xavier Rhodes is quickly gaining a reputation as a shutdown coverman, creating opportunities for a group of corners that that includes Terence Newman (yes, the guy who played for the Cowboys eons ago) and 2015 first-round pick Trae Waynes. Then there are playmakers at linebacker and safety, too. Eric Kendricks, brother of Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks, has six pass breakups and a 77-yard interception return for touchdown, while Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith does a bit of everything with 6.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, 12 interceptions and four pick-sixes in his fifth season.
Having said all of that, it's not like the Vikings are weak against the run. Because they're so dangerous to throw against, opponents do tend to keep the ball on the ground. Minnesota has faced the second-most rushing attempts in the NFL, yet the unit is ranked fourth in yards (77.8 per game) and yards per carry (3.7) allowed. On almost any other team, that would probably be the strength of the defense. Here it's a complement.
X-factor: Danielle Hunter
We could spotlight any number of players on the Vikings defense, but somebody we haven't mentioned already would be Hunter, who is quickly becoming one of the NFL's bright young pass-rushers. The 2015 third-round pick is proving his rookie campaign with 6.0 sacks was no fluke, as he's tied for the team lead with 4.0 already this season. That's in a situational role by the way, not as a starter. Hunter is behind Griffen and Brian Robinson on the depth chart, but he makes the most of his opportunities. Any defense that is three deep on the edge is a defense that concerns quarterbacks, and thanks to a shrewd pick in last year's draft, the Vikings now boast just such an attack.
Everybody knows about Blair Walsh and the missed 27-yard field goal that prevented the Vikings from advancing in last year's playoffs. That's not indicative of Minnesota's special teams though. Cordarrelle Patterson is one of the most dangerous kick returners in football, while Marcus Sherels is gaining such a reputation on the punt return side as well with two touchdowns on the year. And after a shaky start to this season, Walsh has turned things around as is a fine kicker with plenty of leg, so there really isn't any weakness here either.
Mike Zimmer (third season, 23-15)
Enough can't be said for the job Zimmer has done with the Vikings, prior to this season and in 2016 especially. Any other team might've been in shambles after a season-ending injury to their quarterback, particularly of the freak variety Teddy Bridgewater suffered in training camp. Sure, the Bradford trade is helping keep things afloat, but much of the credit for the transformation that's happened in Minnesota falls on Zimmer's defense anyway. As we've seen in years past, most recently with the Broncos in February, a team doesn't necessarily need a prolific passer to win the Super Bowl. As unlikely as it may have seemed two months ago, the Vikings are legitimate contenders, and while they have some tremendous talent on both sides of the ball, which is a credit to their front office, Zimmer deserves a ton of credit for putting the pieces together.
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 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 defensively. Defensive tackle Linval Joseph and defensive 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-catches 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 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, who has been 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 this week.
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 who has multiple TDs. The Vikings move Rudolph all over the place and have him run all types of routes. And we all 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.
Cordarrelle Patterson is the X-factor, a wide receiver with great speed and acceleration who can make big plays but also disappears a lot.
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 situations. 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 so far 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 miss 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