The NFC Championship Game between the Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles on Jan. 21 was a matchup of two of the league’s premier defenses, each counting on a starkly different pass rush approach that had gotten them to this point.
The Vikings leaned largely on a pair of thoroughbreds, playing Everson Griffen for 852 snaps and Danielle Hunter for 825 in 17 games to that point. Brian Robison (602 snaps) had worked as a rotational pass rusher who rushed from an inside lane on passing downs, and the Vikings put more than 700 snaps on both Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson, counting primarily on those players to anchor the defensive front.
The Eagles, on the other hand, had seven defensive linemen play 440 snaps or more at that point in the season, with only defensive end Brandon Graham logging more than 700. In the NFC title game, those seven linemen each played more than 20 snaps, as the Eagles pressured Case Keenum on 48 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Vikings pressured Nick Foles 32.4 percent of the time in the title game, sacking him just once in their 38-7 loss to the Eagles. When coach Mike Zimmer was asked at the NFL scouting combine to assess the Vikings’ defensive lapses at the end of the season, he pointed to a decline in the team’s pass rushing productivity.
“At the end of the year, we didn’t rush the quarterback near as good as we did in maybe the last four or five ballgames,” Zimmer said. “I think that was a little bit of a factor. Everson was hurt; he was fighting through some stuff. … At the end of the year, maybe it was because Tom Johnson played too many plays, maybe we didn’t play Linval enough. There’s a lot of things that we’ve talked about that we have to look at. But we have to do a better job.”
The Eagles carried their template into the Super Bowl, when rookie Derek Barnett — who played only 34 of the team’s 76 defensive snaps — stripped Tom Brady on a fourth-quarter sack at U.S. Bank Stadium.
The Vikings came into 2018 hoping to borrow some of the Eagles’ success with rotational players, deploying a group that defensive line coach Andre Patterson called the deepest he’d had during his time in the NFL. They gave a combined 59 snaps to backup linemen in their season-opening win against the 49ers, during which their starters combined for three sacks and eight quarterback hurries.
But as the Vikings head back to Philadelphia this weekend, trying to avoid a 1-3-1 start, their best-laid plans for a defensive line ensemble have been put on hold during a three-game winless streak.
Griffen will miss his third game this weekend, as he continues to work through mental health issues that first publicly surfaced the day before the Vikings’ 27-6 loss to the Buffalo Bills. Hunter has played all but 11 snaps in the Vikings’ past two games, and third-year defensive end Stephen Weatherly, who’d played 91 career snaps before this season, has assumed a workload typical of Griffen and Hunter in his first two starts. Weatherly played 51 of the Vikings’ 67 defensive snaps against Buffalo and 45 of 55 against the Rams.
With Tashawn Bower out because of an ankle injury, the Vikings could have just two healthy defensive ends — Hunter and Weatherly — for the Eagles game Sunday. They could put fourth-round pick Jalyn Holmes on their gameday active roster for the first time in Philadelphia, or add practice-squad pickup Jonathan Wynn to their 53-man roster before Sunday.
The Vikings could also look to send extra pressure after Carson Wentz, following the Titans’ approach against the Eagles quarterback last week. But as they try to rebound from a game where Jared Goff had an average of 2.78 seconds to throw, they could find themselves thin on edge rushers, in a building where they were overwhelmed by a team with a deep defensive line.
Ben Goessling covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org