Battle to Watch: Eagles Third-Down Offense vs Vikings Third-Down Defense

Battle to Watch: Eagles Third-Down Offense vs Vikings Third-Down Defense

Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
Photo Credit: Kyle Hansen

For the fourth consecutive season, the Vikings will face the Philadelphia Eagles.

For the first time, they’ll get them at U.S. Bank Stadium as Philly returns to the spot where they upset the Patriots in Super Bowl LII.

The Eagles squashed the Vikings’ Super Bowl hopes in the NFC title game that year as they went a remarkable 10 of 14 on third down against Minnesota’s historically good third-down defense. When the Vikings returned to Philadelphia a season later, they held the Eagles to 2 of 9 success on third down and pulled a 26-24 upset of their own.

If this Sunday’s game can be boiled down to a key stat, it’s likely third downs.

The Eagles enter play second in the NFL in third-down offense, one of only two teams along with the Houston Texans to have a conversion rate above 50%. Their 37 of 70 cumulative total includes four games this year where the Eagles finished 50% or better. Their only blemish, if you can call it that, came last week when they went 5 of 13 in a 31-6 win over the New York Jets.

“I think offenses that can stay out of third-and-really-long situations, meaning those seven, eight, nine, ten-plus situations have a little bit better chance of converting and staying on the field,” Eagles coach Pederson said on a conference call.

The Eagles are the league’s number one team in converting third and shorts (1-3 yards) at 90%. In third and intermediate (4-6 yards) they are tied for eighth, and on third and longs they rank 11th. Part of their success stems from efficient first- and second-down plays, setting up the seventh-shortest third-down to-go yardage in the NFL this year.

Since Pederson took over in 2016, the Eagles rank eighth in third-down percentage.

“They really change a lot from week to week,” said Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, “so it’s hard to get a good nab on them.”

Zimmer proceeded to rattle off Philadelphia’s numerous playmakers as the reason for their third-down proficiency. And there are plenty. Prolific tight end Zach Ertz has seven receptions that have converted first downs. Nelson Agholor is close behind with six. Carson Wentz has completed six with his legs.

Wentz has a 117.4 rating on third down, fifth-best amongst qualified quarterbacks. Part of the reason is his mobility. The fourth-year quarterback shows frequently on film his ability to find outlets from messy pockets and make tough throws on the move. For proof, see his touchdown to Alshon Jeffery on 3rd and goal in Week 1 and his near-impossible throw to Mack Hollins to complete a 3rd and 9 in Week 2.

One qualifier: Philadelphia has faced three teams in the bottom six in third-down defense: Washington (31st), Atlanta (30th) and Detroit (27th). Sunday they face one of the greatest in recent NFL history. The Vikings set the all-time mark in 2017 with an astonishing 25.3% conversion rate, then came in first by a wide margin again in 2018 at 30.5%.

Since Mike Zimmer’s arrival in 2014, the Vikings have the best third-down defense in football, and since U.S. Bank Stadium opened in 2016, the Vikings defense is over 4% better than the next closest team.

THIRD-DOWN DEFENSE IN HOME GAMES SINCE 2016

Stats via Pro Football Reference

“There’s an extensive blitz package that they have and they’ve shown that, and they can generate their pass rush,” Pederson said of the Vikings, who have five third-down sacks this year. “They don’t have to blitz to get pass rush, they can do it with four, five or six guys, so it takes a concerted effort to get that done. But if we can stay out of those third down and longer situations that helps a little bit.”

The Vikings are (only) ninth-best in third-down stops through five weeks of the season — the New England Patriots are first at an unsustainable 12.7% — but in their first two home games Minnesota held the Falcons and Raiders to a combined 26.3%. Overall, opposing passers have a 78.9 passer rating on third downs.

But a noteworthy knock on the Vikings this year has been undisciplined play. They lead the league in penalty yardage, and it’s affected their third-down efficiency. Minnesota tops the NFL with six first downs permitted due to defensive penalties on third down.

“I think penalties is a concentration thing, a mental thing,” said Everson Griffen, who has three neutral zone infractions on the year. “You got to prevent yourself from doing it. I don’t know. [Zimmer]’s going to have something for us on Wednesday to do, to talk about, probably a way to fix it, but we just have to get it done ourselves.”

Zimmer has been harping on the excessive flags since Week 1, and he especially dislikes the flags that prevent a would-be punt.

“Last two weeks, first third down of the game, we’ve let them move on because we’ve had a penalty on the back end,” Zimmer said. “We’ve got to get the players in better positions so that they don’t create penalties, and that’s really the big thing.”