In the NFC Championship game, the Minnesota Vikings found out just how many offensive weapons the Philadelphia Eagles can use from drive to drive.
In their 38-7 win over the Vikings, Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles found five different players for at least three receptions. Two receivers caught deep touchdowns and tight end Zach Ertz caught eight passes on eight targets.
“You can’t just stop one guy,” veteran free safety Devin McCourty said at Monday’s media event inside Xcel Energy Center. “You can’t go out there and say, ‘if we just limit Jeffery or if we just limit Ertz that won’t matter.’ They have a lot of different guys out there that can beat you.”
Foles finished the NFC title game with 352 yards and three touchdowns. Overall in two playoff wins, Foles has a 122.1 rating and 77.8 completion percentage.
One of the areas of the Eagles’ offense that has helped drive his success – and crushed the Vikings – is Run-Pass Option plays.
“It is hard because you have to defend every inch of the field,” McCourty explained – in between questions about Tom Brady’s attractiveness. “It’s a run, but it’s also a pass if the quarterback decides to read it. Very tough defensively because each guy has a job and a role on all of our defenses so you have to do that. If you play the run when you’re supposed to be playing the pass and they throw it, that’s going to be a big gain. Each guy has to do their job on the play. We can’t have guys doing things that don’t fit the defense.”
The Patriots defense finished fifth in the NFL in points allowed, just one point behind Philadelphia’s terrific defense. After four weeks, you wouldn’t have guessed New England would end up in that group. They opened the season allowing 42, 20, 33 and 33 points. Since then, opponents have only scored 20 or more points in three games.
“Defensively we just put our heads down and worked,” McCourty said. “Earlier in the season we had some mixups, we had some things not going well but instead of blaming each other we just trusted in each other more. Some of our stuff, problems we were having, was from not knowing if a guy was going to be here or there. [Matthew] Slater talked about it earlier in the season, the way you become better as a group is relationships, trusting in that guy, being able to depend on him and I think each guy individually put in the work to get better at whatever we were doing defensively and I thought that paid off for us.”
At the center of the Patriots’ defensive improvement has been cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who signed with New England this offseason. He struggled to open the year, but finished as the 10th rated corner by Pro Football Focus.
Gilmore made a diving stop late in the fourth quarter to seal the Patriots’ win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
”I thought Steph [was criticized] unfairly. He was a new guy. None of us were playing well, we were giving up 30 points a game. But I thought since he was a new guy, they wanted to talk about how his play was and how he wasn’t playing well and this and that. He didn’t really care about that. Us as a team, we didn’t care. We just talked about getting better as a group. Steph is a great player, he’s gotten better since he got here and it’s been cool to see this ride and see him fit into our group and play well.”
While the Patriots’ defense isn’t quite as stout as the Vikings, they do have one advantage over Minnesota in a matchup with the Eagles: New England ranked seventh in sacks this season (Vikings were 17th). As Minnesota learned, pressuring Foles is key to slowing down Philadelphia’s offense.
“They have a ton of running backs who affect the running game and passing game,” McCourty said. “A lot of talented players and that showed with Wentz going down – and MVP candidate going down and you’re still in the Super Bowl. It shows how much talent they have on that roster.”