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Eagles need pass rush to lead them just as in last two wins over Vikings

The Eagles go into every game hoping that their pass rush can lead the defense, but that directive will be even more pronounced on Sunday.

Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox goes after Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum in the NFC Championship game on Sunday, January 21, 2018 in Philadelphia. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox goes after Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum in the NFC Championship game on Sunday, January 21, 2018 in Philadelphia. YONG KIM / Staff PhotographerRead moreYONG KIM

The enduring images of the Eagles' NFC championship game victory over Minnesota last January include Chris Long's coming around the edge to hit former Vikings quarterback Case Keenum and force an interception, and Derek Barnett's responding during the next quarter with a strip sack to halt a potential scoring drive.

Think back to the Eagles' 2016 win over the Vikings, and you might remember Sam Bradford on the Lincoln Financial Field grass after he was sacked six times by his former team and hit 13 times.

The Eagles go into every game hoping that their pass rush can lead the defense, but that wish will be even more pronounced on Sunday. The Vikings quarterback and offensive coordinator changed from the last two meetings between the two teams, but the advantage the Eagles' defensive line has over the Vikings' offensive line remains. A strong performance will start with the front four.

"I say that every week because, if you really look at it – I think about this all the time – the defensive line is the most experienced group on this team," defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. "It comes down to us. We're the group that needs to lead this team each and every week. We have to. There's no questions about it. Each and every game needs to live up to it."

The Eagles' pass rush got some good news  Thursday, when Cox returned to practice after missing Wednesday's session with an ankle injury. (Cox does not expect the ankle injury to linger this year.) The bad news for the Eagles was that Barnett remains sidelined with a shoulder injury. There will be more clarity on Barnett's status on Friday.

If Barnett is absent, the Eagles will miss their top defensive end this season. However, they still have Long, Brandon Graham, and Michael Bennett – not to mention Cox rushing from the interior.

The Vikings offensive line has been missing pieces at times this season and needed to place starting guard Nick Easton on injured reserve during training camp. Center Pat Elflein rejoined the lineup last week, though, which was a big addition. Still, the line is not the strength of Minnesota's offense.

>> READ MORE: The last Eagles-Vikings game was special for Mychal Kendricks; this time, he's barred from attending

"Sometimes we get so caught up in what other teams have and try to make it about them," Cox said. "The biggest part is we make this about us and collectively as a group go and play together, respect the guys across from you, but it's about us going out and playing as a group and dominating."

The Eagles have 11 sacks in four games, which ranks ninth in the NFL. It puts them on pace for 44 sacks this season, which would be six better than last season's total and would have ranked top five in the NFL last year. The defense has continued the trend of playing better at home. The last two games against the Vikings came in Philadelphia, too.

There should be opportunities to get after Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has attempted more passes (189) than any other quarterback in the NFL. That's the reason he has made the most pass attempts under pressure (72), according to Pro Football Focus.

Although the Eagles had only one sack in the NFC championship game, they had eight quarterback hits. Cousins has been sacked 13 times and hit 25 times in four games. If the Eagles can top the average of three sacks and six hits on Sunday, it will be a good sign for their defense.

"I think that's always our difference in how we operate as a defense," linebacker Jordan Hicks said. "The defensive line, it's all about get penetration, be disruptive, and attacking. We have to put them in [passing] situations, get the offense behind the sticks, so we can let [the pass rushers] go a little bit and they're not worried about having to play the run. That's our formula. Be disruptive up front, get after the quarterback."

The Eagles secondary has been under criticism this week, especially cornerback Jalen Mills. But a good pass rush can make a big difference for the back end of the defense. It's hard to throw deep when the quarterback doesn't have time in the pocket.

A major discussion point from the defensive players was that big plays are about more than one player. It works the other way, too. Patrick Robinson's game-changing interception against the Vikings last year came because of Long's pressure.

That's why the Eagles say it starts with the defensive line. To have a winning record on Monday, then, it's going to take a productive pass rush.

Extra Points

In addition to Barnett, the Eagles missed running backs Corey Clement (quadriceps) and Darren Sproles (hamstring) at practice. Clement was seen running sprints on a side field. Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery returned to practice and will play Sunday. …The Vikings continue to miss running back Dalvin Cook, who was absent from practice Thursday with a hamstring injury. … The Eagles signed defensive tackle Bruce Hector to the practice squad. Hector was cut from the active roster  Tuesday after playing the first four games.