The Vikings’ 24-3 lead had shrunk by two touchdowns when the Eagles faced third-and-2 from the Vikings’ 21-yard line midway through the third quarter of Sunday’s game at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“I’m sure there was a lot of doubt in the stadium,” coach Mike Zimmer said.
You bet there was, bub.
The Eagles had seized momentum. But what they couldn’t do at that moment was fool middle linebacker Eric Kendricks and safety Harrison Smith a second time with a wide receiver screen to Alshon Jeffery from a bunch right formation.
“Harry gave me a good alert before the snap,” Kendricks said. “We had already seen that play earlier. Once I got that alert from Harry, I recognized the play. And I just went.”
Kendricks was on top of Jeffery for a 1-yard loss as soon as the ball arrived.
“I actually thought about jumping it, going for the interception,” Kendricks said. “But I played it safe. Tackle for loss. That works.”
Yes, it did. The Eagles had to settle for a 40-yard field goal and a 24-20 deficit. Nine plays later, the Vikings led 31-20 and the Eagles were finished en route to a 38-20 loss.
“Eric’s a baller,” Smith said. “He can play the run, play the pass, cover guys out of the backfield, blitz. He’s well-rounded and smart. If you’re going to repeat plays like they did today, it’s probably not a good idea against Eric.”
Kendricks tied Anthony Barr with a game-high 10 tackles and Everson Griffen with a game-high two passes defensed.
The Eagles failed to convert on eight of 12 third down tries. Kendricks had a hand in foiling half of them.
Besides the Jeffery stop, he also:
• Tipped a pass in space on third-and-5 to hold the Eagles to a 53-yard field goal.
• Smothered tight end Dallas Goedert while breaking up a pass over the middle on third-and-2. The Eagles went for it on fourth down and were stopped for no gain at the Vikings’ 49.
• Shared his first sack of the season with Mackensie Alexander on third-and-9.
“[The Eagles] are very, very good on third and up to about 4 or 5,” Zimmer said. “So we had to change a few things up today to try to eliminate some of those.”
It wasn’t a perfect game for Kendricks, who Zimmer said had a couple notable mistakes. Kendricks lost coverage on the 32-yard touchdown pass to running back Miles Sanders. He also got beat by Jeffery for a first down on a play that came before the tackle for loss.
“We had to settle him down and get back into playing like he normally plays,” Zimmer said.
Especially midway through the third when Eagles coach Doug Pederson called the same receiver screen that produced a first down on third-and-short earlier.
“There were big telltale signs,” Barr said. “And Eric was all over it.”
Zimmer said good blitzing teams, like the Vikings, are going to see a lot of receiver screens designed to neutralize the pass rush.
“They ran that on us last year,” Zimmer said. “They did it in the [NFC] championship game [the year before].”
Kendricks said there were other times he and fellow defenders called plays out.
“They didn’t all end up with a tackle for loss though,” he said. “But most of the time, I feel like once we get a good read like that, we have the advantage because we can just go make the play.”
Later, with the outcome already decided, Kendricks was part of an odd end zone celebration following an interception by Alexander. Several defenders ran the length of the field to the far end zone. When they assembled, Kendricks was the only one to do a handstand.
“I honestly didn’t plan to do it,” he said. “I was like, ‘What can I do that’s kind of different?’”
Perhaps Pederson should have thought the same thing when he called his favorite receiver screen one too many times while handing momentum back to the Vikings.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraignfl. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org