Eagles expected to blitz Vikings a lot
EDEN PRAIRIE -- When Tarvaris Jackson lines up and crouches for his first NFL playoff snap, he's certain to see a Philadelphia Eagles defense looking plenty busy on the other side -- as if to welcome Minnesota's young quarterback to the postseason.
Darting back and forth, in and out of gaps, the Eagles will surely and eagerly bring the blitz.
It's up to Jackson and his blockers to figure out exactly who's coming and keep that constant, sometimes-confusing pressure from foiling their plans to move the ball.
"They're liable to bring anything, so you've just got to be ready for anything," Jackson said, about the NFC's top-ranked defense.
Fortunately for the Vikings, they had a lot of practice with this just last week in the regular-season finale against the New York Giants.
Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, an assistant coach with the Eagles for eight seasons, called for an extra pass rusher on an astounding 80 percent of the plays in their game against the Vikings at the Metrodome.
"My buddy Spags gave us every blitz in the book throughout the whole day, from snap one on," said Vikings coach Brad Childress, who was on coach Andy Reid's staff with the Eagles along with Spagnuolo and current defensive coordinator Jim Johnson until coming to Minnesota in 2006.
Johnson has been in Philadelphia since 1999, the beginning of Reid's tenure, and his anytime-anywhere philosophy of quickly attacking the quarterback has become renowned around the league. It works more often than not, too. The Eagles have had one of the NFL's best defenses over the past decade, and they ranked third in the league this year in both yards allowed and sacks.
"They've got the personnel to stand back there and not blitz, but they choose to be a pressure defense and try to disrupt plays before they get going," Vikings left guard Steve Hutchinson said. "That's their style of football, and everybody knows it."
The Giants successfully disrupted several plays in last week's 20-19 victory by the Vikings that gave them the NFC North title and set up Sunday's wild-card playoff game against the Eagles.
Without the 67-yard touchdown he raced for in the second quarter, NFL rushing leader Adrian Peterson was held to 36 yards on his 20 other carries. Jackson threw his first interception in 3½ games, and he wasn't as sharp as in previous performances since replacing Gus Frerotte. Jackson never had an opportunity to use his scrambling ability, either.
That was good experience for Jackson, but it also might have exposed a weakness for the Eagles to exploit. Any still-developing quarterback in his first playoff game, really, is a prime target for such a strategy.
"I don't have any illusions about it," Childress said. "If we saw 80 percent blitz this time, we might see 90 come next Sunday."
Even for pressure-based defenses like the Giants and Eagles, those percentages are extraordinarily high. So the Vikings better be ready, and prepared to be talking -- or yelling -- to each other quite a bit before the snap.
When left tackle Bryant McKinnie was asked what a lineman's most critical task is against a blitz-based defense, he responded without a second of hesitation.
"Communication," McKinnie said, without looking up from his cell phone.
The upside to playing the Eagles is the high-reward, high-risk nature of frequent pressure. The blitz gives a quarterback less time to think, let alone throw, but it also means more man-to-man coverage down the field. It also means fewer defenders to save a long touchdown run if Peterson is able to make it through the line.
The blitz, as Hutchinson quickly pointed out, is one of those proverbial double-edged swords.
"Famine, famine, feast," Peterson said. "Be patient."