NFC Championship game will be a battle of third down success, but can Eagles keep up with Vikings?

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The Eagles have been astonishingly successful inside the red zone and on third down this year. Well, for the most part. Until Nick Foles entered the fray and those numbers dropped through the flaw, this offense was sensational at sustaining drives and for the second year in a row, the Eagles lead the league in time of possession. They’ll need to find that same success next Sunday against a Vikings defense that has been breaking records in that very same area.

25.12%. That’s the percentage of third down’s that teams have been able to convert against this ruthless Vikings defense all year long. It’s actually the lowest percentage allowed by any defense since the 1970’s. The high-octane Saints offense fared no better, converting on just 22% of third downs in their heartbreaking loss on Sunday. The Eagles meanwhile are converting on those crucial third downs 41% of the time this year. However in their last three, that number sits at 23.68%. A surge in production on Saturday against Atlanta certainly helped things, but this Vikings defense will present an entirely different challenge.

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“It’s just a smothering defense.” Doug Pederson explained to reporters on Monday. 97 [Vikings DE Everson Griffen], he’s a game wrecker. You’ve got to try to pass protect him, and it’s just you get to 3rd down, and they’ll pressure you a little bit, 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.

This isn’t the first time that Pederson has faced this defense however. In October last year, the Eagles hosted the Vikings and after a sloppy first half, were able to climb out with a 21-10 victory. However, even with a rookie Carson Wentz at the helm, the team were just 4/11 on third down attempts.

“This team is playing — listen, they’ve been together now for a few years.” Pederson said. “This group is playing with a lot of confidence, playing with a lot of speed. Not a lot of mistakes. It’s a scheme that just — they just basically say, ‘Hey, line up and try to come after us, try to beat us.’ That’s what you see on tape, and it’s a daunting task for us this week.”

If we flip the tables, this area becomes even more valuable. The Eagles relentless run defense has been pivotal on those third and short situations and have held offenses to just a 32% conversion rate on third down. The Vikings offense is decimating defenses. Converting on 44.64% of their attempts, that number soared to 58% against the Saints, where they completed 10/17.

Philadelphia came out swinging in the second half against Atlanta after a rollercoaster first half. More receivers touched the ball and the play-action game seemed to open up drastically. For Pederson, it was simply a case of sticking to the plan.

“We didn’t make a lot of wholesale changes at halftime.” The Eagles Head Coach explained. “We just stuck to the game plan. Nick just got — started getting into a little bit of a rhythm in the second half a little bit more, and things began to open up. [WR] Alshon [Jeffery] started getting the ball a little bit, [TE Zach] Ertz [got the ball] a little bit more, and being able to take advantage of some things down the field. The screen game was a big part of that in the second half. There wasn’t a lot of major changes or overhauls at halftime, we just had to stick to our plan. We knew it was going to be a tough ballgame for 60 minutes. Atlanta has a lot of playmakers on offense, and they can light a scoreboard up. But our deal was just staying consistent with our game plan.”

The Eagles will need to do exactly that against a Vikings defense who will test this team in ways that they likely are yet to experience. If trusting the process worked against Atlanta until a rhythm was found, Pederson will be hoping for the same against a defense far less forgiving.

 

 

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