‘Game-Wrecking’ Griffen on Eagles’ mind
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - The hype started for the NFC Championship Game Monday with the two head coaches involved throwing bouquets at the opposing defenses.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson started things at his Monday press briefing after surviving a 4th-and-2 for the season in a 15-10 win over last year's conference kings, the Atlanta Falcons, on Saturday.
This week's opponents, the Minnesota Vikings, can boast of having the NFL's top-ranked defense, as well as the No. 1 scoring defense and the best third-down defense in nearly 50 years, a unit that has allowed its opponents to convert at a dismal 25.2 percent clip.
"It's just a smothering defense," Pederson admitted.
And one that has difference-makers at every level.
The Eagles' coach seemed especially concerned with defensive end Everson Griffen, a second-team All-Pro and arguably the best weak-side pass rusher in football who will spend much of his afternoon lined up against the weak link on the Eagles' offensive line, left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai.
"[No.] 97 [Griffen], he's a game-wrecker," Pederson said. "You've got to try to pass protect him."
That's just the start of what Mike Zimmer, one of the best defensive minds in football, can throw at you, however. Up front, nose tackle Linval Joseph is regarded as the NFL's strongest man and an elite run-stuffer while Griffen's bookend on the edge, Danielle Hunter, is a rangy physical specimen who can create havoc.
At linebacker, three-time Pro Bowl selection Anthony Barr is one of the most well-rounded three-down LBs in the league and Mychal Kendricks' younger brother Eric is one of the most athletic linebackers in football.
At cornerback, Xavier Rhodes is an All-Pro in the conversation with Patrick Peterson and Jalen Ramsey for the best in the game and his running mate Trae Waynes is a former No. 11 overall pick who is still learning the position but may be more physically gifted than Rhodes.
Rounding things at safety is Defensive Player of the Year candidate, All-Pro Harrison Smith and his complement, the hard-hitting Andrew Sendejo, who suffered a concussion in the team's 29-24 miracle win over New Orleans on Sunday, an injury that will put his status in question.
"It's just you get to 3rd down, and they'll pressure you a little bit," Pederson explained. "They play man coverage. The thing is they just mix it in. You just don't know necessarily what's coming. It just comes down to your execution. But that's what you're seeing with this team is just the speed of the D-line getting to the quarterback and then just playing man coverage in the back end that – [Vikings CB Xavier] Rhodes is a tremendous corner, safeties are playing extremely well. It's a good group on 3rd down."
Zimmer, meanwhile, is just as impressed with what he has seen from Jim Schwartz's defense, a group who just shut down an MVP quarterback in Matt Ryan.
"I know they’ve got a great defense," Zimmer said. "I haven’t started watching their defense yet but their front guys are really good. #27 [Malcolm Jenkins], the safety, he’s a very good player."
The Vikings' coach is far less talkative than Pederson but also praised the two stars on Philadelphia's defensive line, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and left end/interior nickel rusher Brandon Graham.
"[Cox] is a good player, too. And [Brandon] Graham. That’s part of the NFL. You have to play great players every week," Zimmer said. "It will be part of the plan to figure out how we stop some of these guys. The unfortunate part is they’ve got a lot of them and so we’re going to have to figure out ways to take advantage of what we can do to slow them down."
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen