Reading the Tea Leaves: Eagles vs. Vikings
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - As members of the media we don't get to watch much of practice when the Eagles are in regular-season mode but if you're paying attention you can pick up a few hints here in there.
Sometimes it's on special teams. When he was a rookie I was able to surmise that Corey Clement would be active in his NFL debut because he was the upback [when there was an upback] on kick returns. This season I was able to accurately pick up that Alex Ellis would be promoted in time for the season opener because I noticed him as a wingback on field-goal protection.
Other times it's more substantive and the Eagles may have gone that route by the red pinnies they had on staffers before Wednesday's practice: Nos. 22, 54, 41 and 27.
If you're familiar with the Minnesota defense you'll note that's the starting safeties: All-Pro Harrison Smith (22) and the underrated Anthony Harris (41), as well as the starting mike linebacker in Eric Kendricks (54), and the team's big-nickel player in king-sized safety Jayron Kearse (27).
There is a bit of cat and mouse going on here for coaches that are familiar with each other. Doug Pederson understands the Vikings know DeSean Jackson isn't going to play again so that means more 12 personnel (two tight ends) with Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, a personnel grouping that is likely to draw Kearse rather than typical slot options Mack Alexander or Mike Hughes.
Couple that with Zimmer's aggressive nature on defense and his reliance on three-down LBs like Kendricks to handle backs without any help and the Eagles could be dialing back to the 2018 NFC Championship Game where they used double moves to catch Smith and wheel routes out of the backfield.
To accomplish that you need to protect up front against what can be a dominant pass rush especially at home in U.S. Bank Stadium which can be accomplished but early-down success something Pederson stressed on Wednesday.
"It's an aggressive style of play, meaning the front four guys really get after the passer," Pederson said of the Vikings defense which is in its now customary top-five spot in the league at No. 4 overall. "So being able to protect [QB] Carson [Wentz], and not only on first and second down, but he [Zimmer] has a pretty extensive blitz package on third down and how he can rush, unique ways of rushing the passer on third down. So being able to protect Carson.
"And then I think the other key really is your plays have to be positive on first down. It's an area that we kind of struggled with in the beginning of the season. We've gotten better here recently. But staying ahead of those chains, keeping yourself in second and shorter distances where you're going to get that first down and stay on the field. Try to, the best you can, eliminate as many third-and-long situations against this defense, against his scheme, and those give you a chance to possibly win."
Zimmer, meanwhile, raved about Ertz on his conference call with the Philadelphia media and is still paying lip service to Jackson even though he's not going to have to worry about the deep threat.
The Vikings coach later echoed similar sentiments at his pre-practice press conference.
"They really change a lot from week to week, so it’s hard to get a good nab on them," Zimmer said of the Eagles. "They got really good players. Ertz is a great player, I think the quarterback feels really good about his opportunities with him. Then they got 17 (Alshon Jeffery) on the outside, who is a tough matchup all the time. DeSean Jackson, they got good backs that can catch the ball out of the backfield. Sometimes they’ll get in two tight end personnel and use (Dallas) Goedert in there. It’s a lot of weapons. 13 (Nelson Agholor), he’s a good player."
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen