VIKINGS // EAGLES OVERVIEW
Philadelphia has been solid on defense this year, ranking ninth in points allowed per game and 10th in yards allowed per game. Philly is not a team that opponents like to run the ball on, as they faced the fewest rush attempts per game in the league last year, and only the Bears have faced fewer rush attempts per game so far this year. This leads to a pass-heavy approach against Philly — and while this team is solid on the back end, volume tends to enable receivers to pile up production against them. Minnesota quietly leads the NFL in passing play percentage, and there is little reason to expect them to shift away from this approach in Week 5, against an Eagles defense that filters everything to the air.
The Vikings’ formerly elite defense has fallen apart early in the season — and while we should expect them to get back on track sooner rather than later, this is yet another difficult test for them. After allowing the fewest yards per pass attempt in the NFL last year, Minnesota ranks 30th through four games of this year, while giving up eight touchdowns and picking off only three passes.
Each team can play up-tempo when necessary, and each team is happy leaning on the pass, so play volume should not be a concern here, and there is an underrated chance that this game could turn into a mini shootout.
VIKINGS PASS OFFENSE
The Eagles allowed 23 or more points in nine of their games last season, but they allowed more than 24 points on only three occasions, making three touchdowns a fair expectations for the strong Vikings offense in this spot — with the likeliest scenario being that all of these scores come through the air. This may not quite be enough to turn Kirk Cousins into a tourney winner himself, but with a narrow distribution of targets on this team, there is still plenty to like.
Adam Thielen has target counts of 12, 13, 19, and 12 to begin the year, with an aDOT of 9.1, and with 41% of the Vikings’ air yards (fifth in the NFL). Alongside him, Stefon Diggs has target counts of six, 13, 10, and 15, with an aDOT of 9.9, and with 34.9% of the team’s air yards.
These two are being used similarly — with variable route trees that overlap quite a bit from game to game — with the big difference coming pre-snap, where Thielen lines up in the slot 65% of the time, to 22% for Diggs.
This elevated slot usage allows Thielen to pick up more mismatches than Diggs has on the outside, while also providing him with higher-floor targets. While each of these guys is an elite route-runner with excellent hands, Diggs has caught 61.4% of his targets, compared to 71.4% for Thielen.
Philly is more attackable over the middle — a trend that has carried over from last year — as they try to force short-area targets and tackle well after the catch. Last year, they nailed half of this puzzle (short area targets), while ranking near the bottom of the league in YAC allowed per reception. This year, the YAC numbers have come under control, but teams are being able to attack downfield more than the Eagles would like.
Either way, this matchup sets up better for Thielen than it does for Diggs, but ultimately it sets up well for both of them. Cousins has thrown 48 or more pass attempts in three consecutive games — and while this volume will get dialed back once the Vikings solve their defensive issues, a road matchup against the Eagles (with a healthy Carson Wentz and a healthy Alshon Jeffery) is a spot where we can expect this volume to remain high once more, especially as the Eagles force everything to the air. With over 75% of this team’s air yards going to these two guys, it won’t be unexpected for both guys to hit. Thielen has produced elite numbers three consecutive weeks, while Diggs has paired up with him in two of those three weeks.
Behind these guys, Laquon Treadwell and Kyle Rudolph are soaking up most of the scraps. Treadwell has quietly played 74.3% of the Vikings’ snaps the last two weeks, running a route on almost 80% of the Vikings’ pass plays and seeing target counts on the year of four, six, four, and seven. He is not being schemed the ball, but with the Vikings passing so frequently, he’s running into some targets. Rudolph has been neck-and-neck with Diggs and Thielen for pass routes run, and he has seen six to eight targets in three consecutive games, with a pair of touchdowns on the year. Six to eight targets should be in his range once again this week. Red zone targets on the Vikings go Thielen 5 // Diggs 2 // Rudolph 2.
VIKINGS RUN OFFENSE
Dalvin Cook has admitted that his hamstring is not 100% healthy — though he will continue to gut it out, sharing time with Latavius Murray in the backfield. Last week, Murray played 41 snaps to only 18 for Cook, but the Vikings have had 10 days to get Cook better since that game. We should see a more even split moving forward.
The good news ends there for the Vikings’ backfield, against a Philly team that has faced under 20 rush attempts per game this year. Only one team has allowed a lower yards per carry than the Eagles, and as with last year, the only real justification for trying to run on them is to “keep the defense honest.” With Kirk Cousins primarily looking downfield when it comes time to throw, look for these two backs to combine for somewhere in the range of 18 to 24 total touches this week. Either guy would need a couple breakdowns in the Eagles’ defense and/or a couple touchdowns in order to be worth a spot on rosters.
EAGLES PASS OFFENSE
Sure enough, Carson Wentz looked a lot more like himself last week with the return of Alshon Jeffery — attacking downfield and dropping dimes on the defense. There is still some rust this passing attack needs to knock off, but they are beginning to round into form.
The same cannot be said of the Vikings’ pass defense, which has been exposed through the first four weeks. The Vikings have been below-average in aDOT, catch rate, and yards allowed after the catch — a far cry from their 2017 season, when they allowed the fewest expected yards per target in the league.
The first question, in attacking a spot like this, is “What is wrong with the Vikings’ defense?” And the second question: “Is it fixable?”
In order to limit the Vikings’ pass rush, teams are attacking them relentlessly with play-action — with no team in the league allowing more passing yards so far on play-action passes. This is something the Eagles will be able to do, holding the Vikings’ front off balance for just long enough to give Wentz time to find an open man. The absence of Everson Griffin is also hurting the Vikings’ pass rush, which is obviously not a solvable issue.
The other big dent in the Vikings has been communication on the back end. The Vikings’ blown coverages have been less about “one man getting burned in one-on-one coverage” and more about “one man ending up out of position, and the offense attacking that spot.” Minnesota has faced a heavy dose of “movement” and “misdirection” teams — with the Bills even overhauling their offensive scheme in Week 3 to add as many of these wrinkles as possible. This movement and misdirection further slows down the pass rush, and it has led to these communication and coverage breakdowns on the back end. The Eagles are better equipped than almost any team in football to take this same approach.
With all that said: Mike Zimmer is one of the steadiest and most level-headed coaches in the NFL. This team was 2-2 last year before finishing 13-3, and they were 2-2 in 2015 before finishing 11-5. They have had 10 days since their last game — and with the issues on the back end being primarily “communication” and “execution” related, we should start seeing improvements this week.
Ultimately, I’m seeing this as an average spot for Philly — with plenty they can do to confuse this defense, but with the defense itself likely improved from what we have seen to date.
Alshon will draw shadow coverage from Xavier Rhodes — who has not been his elite self to begin the year, but who still poses a difficult challenge. Rhodes has the size to hang with Alshon, and because the Eagles will look to beat this defense more through “scheme” than through “talent,” we will likely see the ball spread around a bit more than what we saw last week, when nine targets went Alshon’s way against the man-heavy coverage scheme of the Titans.
Nelson Agholor has suddenly morphed into the early-career version of himself, with three drops last week, and with only one game this year above 33 receiving yards. He did see 12 targets last week with the return of Alshon, while playing twice as many snaps in the slot (48) as he played out wide. Without a viable third wide receiver on this team, Agholor should remain locked into seven or more targets.
This passing attack wraps up with Zach Ertz — who keeps on ticking, with at least 10 targets in every game this season. Only one team allowed fewer receiving yards last year to tight ends than Minnesota — but they are already almost halfway to their 2017 “yards allowed” mark this year. Ertz is in a class of his own, and matchup should never be a major concern for him. Bump his floor down a bit for the matchup, but keep his ceiling the same.
EAGLES RUN OFFENSE
The Eagles continue to rotate running back snaps almost evenly, with Jay Ajayi seeing 40 snaps last week and Wendell Smallwood seeing 37. The Vikings have remained solid against the run, ranking 10th in yards allowed per carry. They have allowed a long run of only 16 yards — the second-best mark in the league, behind only the Bears. Because Minnesota’s troubles on defense are related to communication, rather than to scheme or talent, we should expect this run defense to remain an obstacle for opponents. Ajayi touched the ball a respectable 18 times last week, while Smallwood touched the ball eight times. Either guy will need volume and a touchdown in order to make a dent in the weekend.
I don’t like a ton in this game — but what I like, I like a lot, as Thielen and Diggs are two of my favorite wide receiver plays on the weekend. There are a number of strong Tier 1 candidates this week across all levels of the price range, but I’m guessing both of these guys will find a spot on that list for me this week. I also like Cousins quite a bit, though there are quarterbacks with a clearer shot at four or more touchdowns. Kyle Rudolph is in play for his role and his touchdown upside.
I’ll leave both backfields alone, and I don’t expect to chase the matchup against Xavier Rhodes with Alshon Jeffery either.
Agholor has shown a floor too low for cash games this year, but we shouldn’t forget how high his ceiling can be. He’s a tourney piece to consider this week — especially as he could see elevated action if Rhodes slows down Alshon.
Ertz is always in play. Tight end is a bit ugly this week, and he has one of the highest raw projections on the slate. I don’t imagine I’ll pay to get him, but if salary works out differently than expected, I’ll be happy to find him on my roster.
SATURDAY AFTERNOON UPDATE // Full “Updates” List
Dalvin Cook appears unlikely to play in this game now. If he plays, he will be limited. This will further push Minnesota toward the air, against an Eagles team that already pushes teams toward the air. Volume should be heavily in favor of Cousins, Thielen, and Diggs.