The Vikings’ screen game created big gains against the Giants, and the approach could help find room Sunday against an “attacking” Eagles defense recently serving as kryptonite to running backs.
Running back Dalvin Cook’s first 200-yard game from scrimmage last Sunday was boosted by screens, producing plays of 15, 22 and 24 yards in New York. Head coach Mike Zimmer wants to see more after emphasizing the concept “extremely hard” in Vikings practices.
“The more we can do that, it helps the overall part of the offense,” Zimmer said. “It can possibly slow down some of the rushers.”
The Eagles’ run defense ranks No. 1 allowing just 3.2 yards per carry. Added incentive for the Vikings’ screen game is the fact running backs, from Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman to New York’s Le’Veon Bell, have compiled more receiving yards (151) than rushing yards (140) against the Eagles.
Cook, who is just one of two NFL players with at least 500 rushing yards and 200 receiving yards, becomes the latest running back trying to crack the Eagles defense.
“It’s an attacking style. They get off the ball. They tackle well,” coordinator Kevin Stefanski said. “Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham, what they bring to the table is a really special group.”
Thielen home sick
Receiver Adam Thielen was “legitimately” sick on Thursday, according to a team source, and was excused from practice, unlike Stefon Diggs’ unexcused absences last week that cost him more than $200,000 in team fines while claiming he was sick.
Thielen was one of three players unable to practice Thursday, including linebacker Ben Gedeon (concussion) and right guard Josh Kline (foot). Nose tackle Linval Joseph returned after he was excused from Wednesday’s practice to “take care of some business,” per Zimmer.
Center Garrett Bradbury was a new addition to the injury report with a shoulder ailment; he was limited in Thursday’s practice.
Another tall task
Safety Anthony Harris was a key to the defense limiting Giants tight end Evan Engram last weekend, and he could draw some more tough assignments Sunday in Eagles tight ends Zach Ertz — the receiving threat — and Dallas Goedert — a stubborn blocker in the run game. The Eagles offense often plays with two tight ends, which could make for a more physical game for Vikings safeties.
“You’re starting to see that trending around,” Harris said. “Really athletic tight ends, guys that can flex out and get out in space. It’ll be a challenge this week.”
The Vikings defense boasts one of two pairs of NFL edge defenders with enough quarterback pressures to each rank Top 10, according to Pro Football Focus. Defensive end Everson Griffen’s return to form is a reason why. Only eight edge rushers, including Hunter, have more than Griffen’s 26 quarterback pressures, which includes three sacks.
“Just feels good to be playing at a high level again,” Griffen said. “There are still some things I can clean up and get better at, but I’m just going out there helping my team win and being that fire, like I’ve been.”
When the Vikings reach the red zone, the offense has been much more effective when running than throwing. To find balance, a collective effort is needed, according to tight end Kyle Rudolph, who was once an effective red-zone target for the Vikings. The Eagles defense won’t make Sunday easy as it surrenders just 4.38 points per red-zone trip (eighth in NFL), according to Football Outsiders.
“I don’t think you can pinpoint it to one thing,” Rudolph said. “When you get down into that area, the windows are much smaller. You have to execute that much better. It’s just going to take one of us going out there and making a play.”