Vikings’ Irresistible Force Meets Schwartz’s Immovable Front
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - Back in 2017 the Eagles were feeling the running backs at the top of the draft, first eyeing Christian McCaffrey at No. 14 overall, something that wasn't meant to be when Carolina tabbed its current star as a top 10 selection.
From there the Philadelphia goal shifted to Dalvin Cook in the second round, a player with similar well-rounded skills who dropped a bit for some off-the-field questions in his background. The Eagles thought the second round was the prudent place to strike on a first-round talent but Minnesota had the same idea, moving up ahead of the Eagles to snare the former Florida State star as the 41st overall selection. Philadelphia ended up selecting cornerback Sidney Jones at No. 43.
The Eagles' significant interest in both McCaffrey and Cook was reported at the time by 973espn.com and has been confirmed since.
"Yeah, we were close, right there at that time," coach Doug Pederson said Wednesday when discussing Cook in advance of Philadelphia's visit to Minneapolis on Sunday. "I just remember going back and watching him coming out in the draft and studying him a little bit. I really liked his explosiveness, not only with the ball in his hands, but he can catch the ball out of the backfield.
"There was a lot of explosive plays on his tape. I was really comfortable with him and we were close to pulling the trigger on that one."
In the ensuing years, McCaffrey has become a true superstar with the Panthers and Cook has flashed rare big-play ability in between injuries with the Vikings. Healthy through the first five games this season it's conceivable Cook has been the best RB in the NFL this season and if he hasn't, he's at worst been No. 2 to CMac.
On Sunday it figures to be the irresistible force against the immovable object when Cook, who is second in the league with 542 yards rushing (to McCaffrey's 587) faces the No. 1 ranked Eagles run defense in what figures to be a separation game for a pair of 3-2 teams. Overall the Vikings are third in rushing at 166 yards per game while Philadelphia allows just 63 on the ground.
“We put an emphasis on it,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said on Tuesday when talking about how stout his run defense has been. “Our guys pretty well know what to do.”
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer explained further:
"Well they’re very aggressive up front. (Brandon) Graham and (Fletcher) Cox, they’re very physical guys on our right side," Zimmer said. "They do a nice job with (Malcolm) Jenkins, who gets in the box a lot and makes a lot of plays. They’re running a couple different coverages now, but they’re mixing up the fronts a little bit more than they have in the past. They’ve got a few more line stunts that they’ve been doing."
Cook is actually No. 1 in yards-per-carry at 5.9 and is just as dangerous in the passing game, also pacing the Vikings with 21 receptions for 200 yards.
“Their running back is phenomenal,” Eagles cornerback Orlando Scandrick, who worked out with the Vikings back in the summer, said. “He’s one of the best backs in this league. ... He runs really hard. He has great speed, he’s got great vision.”
The Vikings’ ground attack has improved with the additions of assistant head coach Gary Kubiak and run-game coordinator Rick Dennison, two long-time friends who have developed one of the best zone-run schemes in football through stints together in Denver, Houston, and Baltimore.
"Those guys were in Denver and Houston and Baltimore. There is a lot of carryover," Schwartz explained. "They are all experienced guys. They're on the same page and know that run game inside out. I think that when you watch guys play together as a unit, when you watch guys play fast, that's a testament to coaching. Gary has been one of the best at coaching that scheme for a long time."
Behind Cook, the Vikings also have rookie third-round pick, who is averaging 5.6 YPR, with Ameer Abdullah at 5.7 YPR and Mike Boone at 9.3 YPR in limited duty.
“First thing it looks like they've clicked the speed of the film up a little bit,” said Schwartz. “They're making big plays everywhere … that will get your attention real quick. We're a pretty strong run defense; they're a pretty strong run offense."
Long a weakness in Minnesota the offensive line still struggles in pass protection but the additions of Josh Kline and rookie Garrett Bradbury on the interior have really fit in well with the zone-running schemes.
“They play well as a unit,” Schwartz surmised. “A lot of zone blocking. A lot chop blocks, stretch run. You can see Gary Kubiak's influence into their run game. And that's the thing. When you talk about the zone run game, it's not a one-on-one blocking endeavor. It's five guys, six guys, plus a fullback all working together and tying the running back into it. They're all on the same page and they do an outstanding job of it. Like I said, it's going to be a great match on Sunday. A good run defense against an outstanding run offense.”
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen