As we stretch toward the middle of Super Bowl week and the Philadelphia Eagles continue their residency in the Twin Cities, there’s still plenty of fascination about the lopsided victory they scored over the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game and the command they displayed over the league’s top-ranked defense in the process.
According to Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson, one of the keys to Philadelphia’s 38-7 win was the method they used to turn the Vikings’ blitz packages against them.
When the Vikings would line up in the double-A gap blitz look that’s become a staple of their defense under Mike Zimmer, Eagles center Jason Kelce would point at the linebacker (either Eric Kendricks or Anthony Barr) that Philadelphia expected to blitz — or so they wanted the Vikings to assume. In reality, Johnson said, the Eagles were pointing at one linebacker and blocking the other one, effectively goading the Vikings into sending the blitzer Philadelphia wanted.
“Kind of reverse psychology on them,” Johnson said. “We knew what they were trying to do with their safeties. We knew if the D-end was going to tighten down to a tight 5 [technique] that they were going to bring [a blitzer]. So little clues like that.”
On a 3rd-and-11 in the first quarter of the NFC Championship Game, the Vikings lined up with Barr and Kendricks over Kelce, with Harrison Smith showing a blitz off the right side of the Eagles’ line. Kelce pointed at Kendricks, who dropped in coverage, and stepped over to block Barr with no hesitation after the snap. Running back Corey Clement moved from Nick Foles’ left to his right to pick up Smith, and Foles drilled tight end Zach Ertz, who broke Trae Waynes’ tackle for a first down.
It’s a similar approach to the one former Vikings center Matt Birk told former Star Tribune Vikings beat writer Matt Vensel he used when facing Zimmer’s Cincinnati Bengals defenses during his time with the Baltimore Ravens.
And with 10:13 left in the third quarter, the Eagles called the play that broke the Vikings’ back. Minnesota lined up with nickel corner Mackensie Alexander near the line of scrimmage on a 1st-and-10, and when left end Danielle Hunter lined up directly over Chance Warmack (in a five-technique setup, in other words), Foles motioned wide receiver Nelson Agholor into a tight split on the right side of the Eagles’ line. Hunter tried to run a stunt to the outside of Alexander, but the Eagles blocked both players, and Foles had time to hand off to Clement, take a pitch from the back and launch a 41-yard strike for a flea-flicker touchdown that put Philadelphia up 31-7.
“Lane can say a lot of things. Wow," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said Monday night. "Part of playing division opponents in particular, teams you play a couple times a year, you better have some dummy calls – some things that you say that either you change up, or you're saying to sort of force the defense or the offense to account for that when it really doesn't mean anything. That's just part of football, and I think it comes up the most when you have teams that play each other a lot. If you go to the same calls too much, I think anybody can catalog those and make you pay for them."
After the game, coach Mike Zimmer blamed himself for sticking with the Vikings’ time-tested calls for too long, rather than throwing something else at the Eagles’ offense. It’s difficult to know whether that was specifically to blame on any of the Eagles’ big plays, but Foles’ ability to burn the Vikings’ blitzes was a major factor in the game: he was 12 of 13 for 165 yards and a touchdown when the Vikings sent extra pressure, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Vikings relied less on their double-A gap looks throughout 2017 as teams searched for new ways to stop them, and they’ve never been a high-volume blitz team on the order of clubs like the Cardinals, Panthers and Packers. But as the Vikings make offseason adjustments to their defense, it’s safe to assume they’ll spend plenty of time reviewing tape of a game that the rest of the NFL will undoubtedly study for clues to beating the Vikings’ defense.
“We got outschemed,” Hunter said shortly after the NFC title game. It’s rare to hear a Vikings defender in position to say that, and Johnson’s remarks provided a window into how the Eagles did it.