The morning after every Vikings game, after a few hours of sleep and maybe an early flight back to Minneapolis, Star Tribune beat writer Matt Vensel will empty out his notebook and share a few opinions after getting a chance to gather his thoughts. It’s sort of like a Minnesota-centric version of the Monday Morning QB — except it’s a few thousand words and one haiku shorter.
In the days leading to Sam Bradford’s return to Philadelphia, the city of brotherly boos, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said that the quarterback’s understanding of the Eagles offense was “overrated” by the media when it comes to gleaning something useful they could use against the Eagles.
The Eagles, on the other hand, believed their knowledge of their former starting QB — specifically his weaknesses — would allow them to rattle Bradford and help the Eagles knock off the NFL’s lone unbeaten team.
The Eagles ended up being right, as they relied on zone blitzing — and one specific blitz featuring rolled coverage — to confuse Bradford in key spots.
The most glaring example came late in the second quarter when the Vikings, who squandered a pair of prime scoring opportunities in the first quarter, moved into Eagles territory again. On second-and-8, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz went to a look that had given Bradford, who was acquired in a stunning trade last month, trouble in Eagles practices.
“There was one or two looks that we know Sam didn’t like,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said after the game. “It was based off of practicing against him and knowing some things that he couldn’t pick up in camp.”
On that play, the Vikings lined up with wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen to the left and a pair of tight ends on the right side of the line.
Just before the snap, Eagles safety Rodney McLeod, who was lined up across from Thielen in the slot, crept up to the line of scrimmage to blitz. Joining him in attacking the left side of the Vikings offensive line was Eagles outside linebacker Mychal Kendricks. On the other side of the line, Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham dropped in to coverage.
Without an obvious quick outlet to burn the five-man blitz, Bradford hesitated after taking the shotgun snap before cocking to throw downfield. He was a fraction of a second too late as McLeod had looped around left tackle Jake Long to knock the ball out of his throwing hand.
After recovering the loose ball at their 48-yard line, the Eagles would go kick a field goal to go up 11-3 on their way to a dominant 21-10 win.
“We knew traps would give him trouble,” Eagles defensive end Connor Barwin said. “We knew when he gets pressure he likes to get the ball outside right away. And so we brought some of that pressure.”
Added McLeod: “It’s just a roll coverage. We blitz off the edge. You just pressure strong and roll the coverage. It was a great call by Schwartz.”
Schwartz and the Eagles had blitzed just 13 times in their three previous games, according to ESPN. They sent five or more 12 times yesterday.
“The zone pressures were affecting Sam,” said Jenkins, a Pro Bowl safety who also boasted after the game that the Eagles had the best defense in the NFL. “We did a good job disguising, making them all look the same.”
Bradford, who in the first half coughed up his first three turnovers of his Vikings career, said that pressure didn’t cause him to take more risks. Heck, on many plays he didn’t even had enough time to be careless.
“Obviously we knew that they were good up front,” Bradford said. “I’ll have to go back and look at the tape, but we have to figure out a way [to handle pressure better]. It involves all of us. I’ve got to figure out a way to get it out quicker. We’ve got to do a better job of staying on guys.”
It would be a stretch to say that the Eagles’ familiarity with Bradford was the reason the Vikings lost yesterday. No, that would be the play of the offensive line. But it did help the Eagles come up with at least one key play.
“I just think that any time you know a quarterback on the other team and kind of know strengths and weakness and things like that, you just try to give him some different looks and put some pressure on him from different areas,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. “It was a great game plan.”
FIVE SNAP COUNT OBSERVATIONS
1. Long, the veteran offensive tackle who signed a one-year deal with the Vikings two weeks ago, played 13 snaps on offense as he rotated with T.J. Clemmings and Jeremiah Sirles at tackle. Long played all of his snaps on the left side with Clemmings sliding over to the right when he was on the field. Clemmings played all 76 snaps while Jeremiah Sirles played 63.
2. Diggs, the top wideout who missed the Week 5 win over the Texans due to a groin injury, started and played 61 snaps against the Eagles, second among Vikings wideouts behind Thielen, who played 67. Diggs had two catches for 18 yards in the loss. Cordarrelle Patterson again ran as the No. 3 wideout, out-snapping Charles Johnson, 51-18. Top pick Laquon Treadwell and veteran Jarius Wright were inactive yesterday.
3. Starting safety Andrew Sendejo played only six of the 58 defensive snaps before a sprained ankle, which he suffered after his first-quarter interception, knocked him out of the game. Rookie Jayron Kearse, a seventh-round pick, replaced Sendejo, playing a career-high 52 snaps.
4. Veteran outside linebacker Chad Greenway, who only plays in the 4-3 base defense, played 24 snaps after getting seven total in the team’s previous two games because the Giants and Texans used three-receiver sets for the vast majority of those games. Fellow linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks played every defensive snap. Barr has played all but five defensive snaps this season while Kendricks has sat out only 14.
5. After exiting the game in the second quarter with what appeared to be a left ankle injury, running back Jerick McKinnon returned but ended up playing only 16 snaps. So Matt Asiata played a season-high 57 in the loss. Ronnie Hillman made his Vikings debut yesterday, playing four snaps.
FOUR QUOTES FROM THE LOCKER ROOM
1. “We were 5-0 and probably had a little bit of a big head, but things happen. I’m kind of glad it happened to us, just to get hit in the mouth early in the year. Sometimes you need that. Things will be better.” — Patterson on the Vikings getting a reality check against the Eagles.
2. “If I knew why it happened, I’d go play the lottery. … I don’t know why it happened. Sometimes in sports, it just happens. — tight end Kyle Rudolph on them turning the ball over four times after doing it just once in the first five games.
3. “Where’s Aaron Rodgers? Relax. It’s OK. We’re 5-1. We’ve got a long way to go.” — cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, referencing the Packers quarterback’s famous quote from 2014, as he tells fans not to panic.
4. “We didn’t block anybody. We were soft. We got overpowered. … We got whipped.” — Zimmer on the poor play of his offensive line, adding, “We need to get these guys better and we need to do it quickly.”
THREE TAKEAWAYS FROM THE GAME
1. The Vikings offensive line is probably going to be a major issue all season. I tend not to rush to judgment. I kind of casually stroll up to it. But I think we have seen enough in the past six games that suggests there is not much of a chance for this line to become the strength the Vikings hoped it would become when they signed Alex Boone and hired Tony Sparano as position coach. The play of the tackles, especially newcomer Jake Long, played a major role in all three of Sam Bradford’s turnovers against the Eagles. Zimmer said after the game that this group needs to come together quickly. And, yes, it is possible. In 2012, I covered a Ravens team that had offensive line issues all season but got their act together in time for a Super Bowl run. But with these Vikings, right now at least, it seems pretty likely they will have to win in spite of the guys up front.
2. Barr continues to have a subdued season for the Vikings. The third-year outside linebacker did recover a Carson Wentz fumble in the open field during yesterday’s loss. But he has not been a major difference-maker through six games this season. In his first two years with the Vikings, he seemingly made a splash play — a big sack or forced turnover — every game or two. Those helped him make the Pro Bowl in 2015 as an injury replacement. He has been mostly quiet in 2016, recording 21 tackles, a sack and one pass break-up. That’s it. Maybe blame it on the defensive line for making most of the plays before the linebackers get there? It is not as if Barr has been bad. He’s just been OK and has set the bar higher than that. The big, versatile outside ‘backer can play better — and that’s a scary thought for a Vikings defense that played another great game yesterday.
3. This loss was ugly, but the Vikings are still the team to beat in the NFC. My mentions on Twitter are an interesting place whenever the Vikings don’t win. The loss, which Zimmer rightfully called “embarrassing,” was the first of the season for what had been the NFL’s lone unbeaten team entering Week 7. Yet a few ship-jumping fans were saying that the season was over for the first-place Vikings. And that Bradford should be benched. And the offensive line should basically be deported. Yes, that line might end up being the team’s downfall in the end. But allow me to echo Munnerlyn, who channeled Rodgers, and say R-E-L-A-X. The Vikings are still a really good team with a special defense and championship-caliber resolve after overcoming injuries to key players to start 5-0. It is early still, but these Vikings are going to be tough to take out during the playoffs.
TWO QUESTIONS FOR ZIMMER TODAY
1. Did Long show you anything that suggested the 31-year-old can still start at the NFL level, and will the rotation at offensive tackle continue?
2. With the Vikings struggling to score touchdowns in the red zone, why not give Treadwell a red-zone role and see what the rookie does with it?
ONE THING TO THINK ABOUT THIS WEEK
1. The Bears, whom the Vikings play next Monday, are banged up and bad. But, as a couple of players pointed out yesterday, the Vikings have struggled at Soldier Field in recent years. They have lost 13 of their last 15 games in Chicago and had dropped seven in a row before edging the Bears, 23-20, at Soldier Field last season. So, yeah, it’s been a tough place for them to play. But again, these Bears are bad. And if the Vikings lose to them next week, then it will be understandable for their fans to P-A-N-I-C.