Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said the other day that whichever highly regarded defense steps up in Sunday's NFC championship game, that team will prevail. And looking at the matchup, it is hard to disagree.
Both teams are capable of shutting down the run – the Eagles ranked first there, the visiting Minnesota Vikings ranked second – but the place where the Eagles really must perform is in pass defense, to narrow a seeming disparity with their visitors. The Vikings' 3,078 passing yards allowed were the NFL's second-fewest, and their 13 touchdown passes allowed were the fewest. The Eagles' defense ranked 17th in passing yardage, 3,637, though opponents often had a hard time turning those yards into points, particularly at Lincoln Financial Field, where the Eagles have allowed just five touchdown passes in their last six home games. They gave up 24 over their 16-game season.
Adam Thielen's 1,276 receiving yards in 2017 make him the third-most-productive receiver the Eagles have faced this season, behind the Falcons' Julio Jones (1,444 yards) and the Chargers' Keenan Allen (1,393). Both Jones and Allen did some damage in their matchups with the Eagles – Jones with nine catches for 101 yards last week, Allen five catches for 138 yards back on Oct. 1 – though the Eagles won both games.
Neither Jones nor Allen had a teammate who put up 849 receiving yards this season, though, the way last Sunday's divisional round hero, Stefon Diggs, did on his 64 catches.
Patrick Robinson, usually the Eagles' nickel corner, said he thinks he needs to be ready for both Thielen and Diggs, because "they line up everywhere" in Minnesota offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur's scheme.
Thielen is one of those stories that really makes you question all the draft prep teams do – undrafted out of Divison II Minnesota State (Mankato), not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, 160 catches for 2,243 yards and nine touchdowns the past two seasons.
"He's very crafty with his routes," Robinson said. "He does everything, like, textbook. He's breaking down, his head's over his toes, he's really pumping his arms. Everything's really textbook with him. In my opinion, that's why he's had so much success."
Safety Rodney McLeod agreed: "He's a savvy route-runner. Gets in and out of his breaks well."
Robinson said of Diggs: "Diggs is really quick. He's kind of crafty also, but he's pretty quick and explosive."
Corner Jalen Mills noted that "you see 'em consistently getting open. Guys having really, really tight coverage on 'em, and then at the same time, they make successful catches."
Minnesota also uses tight end Kyle Rudolph (57 catches, 532 yards, eight touchdowns) and running back Jerick McKinnon (51 catches, 421 yards, two touchdowns) effectively in the passing game.
The Vikings have a lot of success with "pick" or "rub" routes. In the NFL, the rules on what is legal there leave room for interpretation. Downfield, a receiver isn't supposed to cut off a defender unless the receiver is playing the ball, but judging who is running into whom, with what intent, in tight spaces is something like calling a block or charge in basketball.
"Well, not every pick play is illegal," safety Malcolm Jenkins noted. "If you're up on the line of scrimmage, you're an aggressive defense that likes to press all your corners or DBs, then they can contact you within 1 yard of the line of scrimmage. The rest of it is body position. They're not just going to run up to you and hit you. They'll just kind of put people in your way as a defender and make you weave in and out and somebody gets open. So you've got to recognize the formations and put yourselves in positions not to get picked."
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was asked this week about what the Vikings do with picks and rubs, and Schwartz didn't seem to think it was that notable.
"Everybody in the NFL runs versions of it," Schwartz said. "We defend it every week, so I wouldn't say one team defends it more or uses it more than the next.
"A lot of it depends on what you're playing, also. … If you're playing man, you've got potential to get picked. If you're playing zone, you're probably not going to get picked. So I think a lot of it also depends on what [opposing defenses] do."
Thielen has been limited in practice this week by a back injury suffered in last week's victory over the Saints, and is listed as questionable, though he is expected to play. He caught six passes for 74 yards against New Orleans.