Pregame: Defense faces one of the tougher tests in Vikings-Eagles
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The Minnesota Vikings' quarterback plight should be overtly obvious on Sunday when they host the Philadelphia Eagles and hot-hand Nick Foles.
Aside from having one of the worst pass defenses in the league, the Vikings are pinned against one of the NFL's most efficient passers. Foles' 20 touchdowns to one interception is the best ratio you'll find as the Eagles play to hold onto their one-game NFC East division lead over the Dallas Cowboys.
A Vikings quarterback has topped Foles' 120 average passer rating on the season just once, when Matt Cassel commanded the team's first win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 29. Christian Ponder is pegged to backup Cassel for the second time this season in the veteran's fourth start on Sunday.
A third-round pick in 2012, Foles has commanded the Eagles to a top-3 offense with the NFL's leading rusher in LeSean McCoy. Although an entirely different scheme, the Vikings would've liked the same results, but their young quarterback in Ponder didn't live up to the 12th-overall draft pick in 2011.
Instead, the Vikings have started three quarterbacks this season and weren't necessarily forced to do so. Injuries have plagued the quarterback position for most teams, but that's not always why a switch is made. The 49th starting quarterback of 2013 will take the field on Sunday when the Washington Redskins trot out Kirk Cousins over a healthy Robert Griffin III.
The Vikings' carousel settled on Cassel, who, barring injury, will have commanded 10 of the team's 12 quarters of play in December after Sunday. He could be without running backs Adrian Peterson (groin/foot) and Toby Gerhart (hamstring) as both are listed questionable and could be game-time decisions. Third-string rusher Matt Asiata could get his first career start if neither play, although coach Leslie Frazier was optimistic about his top two rushers on Friday.
Guard Brandon Fusco (knee) and cornerback Xavier Rhodes (ankle) are both listed as doubtful. The Vikings secondary thinned even further on Friday when cornerback Chris Cook was a late-week addition to the injury report with a knee ailment. He's questionable, which leaves Marcus Sherels, Robert Blanton and Shaun Prater as the only healthy options.
Let's take a look at the five key matchups heading into Sunday.
For the Vikings
Rumble young man, rumble - Frazier said this week that rookie receiver Cordarrelle Patterson 'has to be mentioned' in the NFL's offensive rookie of the year award. Patterson has made quite the case for himself as he leads the NFL though Week 14 in average kickoff return yards (33.3), total return yards (1,119) and return touchdowns (2). The NFL's best return man added a new wrinkle to his rookie resume in Sunday's loss at Baltimore when he notched a career-high 141 receiving yards, including a 79-yard touchdown reception that he caught behind the line of scrimmage. Patterson should build on his already-impressive season on Sunday as the Eagles are one of two NFL teams that allow more passing yards per game than the Vikings. The Eagles are also the only team in the league to have allowed multiple kickoff returns for touchdowns.
Sunday's game could go a long way in Patterson's case to continue the Vikings' streak: the only two non-quarterbacks to win offensive rookie of the year since 2005 are running back Adrian Peterson and receiver Percy Harvin.
Cassel to revamped WR corps - The Vikings spent heavily this offseason to re-up on their otherwise dismal receiving corps when they added Greg Jennings from the Green Bay Packers and drafted Patterson in the first round. It took until Week 14 to get Patterson over 100 yards, while Jennings still hasn't cracked that mark through 13 games with the team. However, despite the lack of production from receivers this season - Cassel has given the Vikings their best shot. All three of Jennings' touchdowns have come from Cassel, while the veteran also found receiver Jerome Simpson for his first touchdown in 26 games with the Vikings on Sunday in Baltimore. The Eagles allow 285.5 yards per game through the air this season and could provide an ample opportunity to stretch the field should Peterson or Gerhart be held out.
Audie - Second-year linebacker Audie Cole had a team-leading 35 tackles since he took over the middle for Erin Henderson last month. Cole has been an improvement over his predecessor, but will face his most important test on Sunday against Eagles running back LeSean McCoy. Cole hasn't exactly held up against the run in his three starts and a stat from Pro Football Focus exemplifies that: "In 80 run defense snaps he has made ten tackles and missed five, a tackling efficiency that ranks him 49th out of 55 qualifying inside linebackers." Packers' bruiser Eddie Lacy averaged 4.4 yards per carry in Week 12, while Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte gained 5.2 yards per rush against the Vikings in Week 13. However, Cole showed flashes of being disruptive in his first two starts when he tallied a sack on his first snap in Green Bay and a pass deflection early on against the Bears. His 6-foot-5, 239-pound frame could be suited better against downhill rushers, but he and the Vikings get a difficult test against a lateral back like McCoy on Sunday.
For the Eagles
Mistake-free football - The Eagles only have 16 turnovers, which ties for fifth-fewest in the NFL. Seven of those turnovers have come from Philadelphia quarterbacks not named Nick Foles as he's thrown for a league-low one interception for passers with at least 15 touchdowns this season. Bears replacement Josh McCown is the only other NFL passer with 10+ touchdowns to throw just one pick. McCown threw for a career-high 9.86 yards-per-pass as a starter and no turnovers in his Week 13 overtime loss to the Vikings in the Metrodome.
Meanwhile, the Vikings tallied their first multi-interception game since Sept. 22 in the loss at Baltimore on Sunday as they failed to capitalize on fourth-quarter interceptions by safety Andrew Sendejo and cornerback Marcus Sherels. Both players should be in line for large roles on Sunday as Rhodes and Cook could be out, while safety Harrison Smith returns from a foot injury, but will be limited.
Shady McCoy - The NFL's leading rusher will take the field on Sunday at the Metrodome and it isn't NFL MVP Adrian Peterson. Peterson relinquished his hold on the rushing title last week after exiting in the second quarter with a mid-foot sprain. He finished with 13 yards on seven carries while the Eagles' LeSean McCoy racked up a season-high 217 rushing yards in a win over the Detroit Lions.
The Vikings will have enough to handle on the ground, but McCoy actually leads running backs with 11 yards per reception of rushers with 40 catches or more. He should be a main factor in various screen and outlet passes that opponents use to neutralize the Vikings' pass rush. (See: Reggie Bush, Matt Forte and Eddie Lacy). The no-huddle offense has provided issues for the Vikings in the past, including the Ravens' comeback victory last Sunday and their fourth-quarter unraveling at Lambeau Field three weeks ago. The Eagles and former Oregon coach Chip Kelly use a type of hurry-up offense that isn't determined by situation, but utilized as a schematic motif. That's partly why the Eagles are last in the NFL in time of possession (26:03), trailing only the Vikings (27:23).
Out - TE John Carlson (concussion), CB Josh Robinson (chest)
Doubtful - CB Xavier Rhodes (ankle), G Brandon Fusco (knee)
Questionable - RB Adrian Peterson (groin/foot), RB Toby Gerhart (hamstring), CB Chris Cook (knee)
Probable - LB Chad Greenway (wrist), LB Larry Dean (knee)
Doubtful - LB Najee Goode (hamstring), S Earl Wolff (knee)
Probable - CB Brandon Boykin (hip), CB Cary Williams (hamstring)