As the Vikings offense prepares for tomorrow’s NFC Championship, one would assume a major focus of their gameplan will be how to deal with Fletcher Cox. And for good reason; the man is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate and a major reason why Philadelphia has made it this far. Pat Shurmur will have his hands full figuring out how to neutralize one of the league’s most dominant players.
The Vikings interior line has had an up-and-down season. Due in part to injuries and part to inexperience, they have struggled at times to maintain a consistent push up front. Shurmur always makes it a point to keep balance in his offense, so regardless of Cox’s dominance, Minnesota will run the ball early and often. Whether or not they succeed in that area is a different story.
To help gauge the line’s readiness for Philadelphia’s strong front, let us take a look back at how they have fared against similar opponents. By my estimation, the Vikings have played against six elite interior defensive linemen in seven games. Those six players are Cameron Heyward, Gerald McCoy, Akiem Hicks twice, Aaron Donald, Kawann Short and Geno Atkins. Here is a table of how they fared:
*DI=Defensive Interior RD=Run Disruptions KD=Knockdowns All stats via STATS.
Clearly, all of these players have had a fair amount of success against the Vikings interior line. While run disruptions in the interior are commonplace, the high number of hurries and knockdowns is worth noting. For example, Donald, who is Cox’s closest comparable, did not record a sack but still managed pressure on five snaps. Week 17 against the Bears is the only time they succeeded in keeping a top-flight tackle out Case Keenum‘s lap.
Nick Easton, Joe Berger and Pat Elflein faced the majority of these matchups, appropriately; they started the bulk of games at the three interior line positions. Berger surrendered the most run disruptions with seven while Elflein and Easton both surrendered six pressures to lead Viking linemen. Mike Remmers allowed high pressure and disruption counts, considering he played most of his snaps at tackle (four and three).
Of course, Easton will not play tomorrow due to his fractured ankle. Like last week, Remmers will bump inside to guard to replace him and Rashod Hill will fill in at right tackle. Hill had a rough game against the Saints a week ago, but Remmers performed admirably, despite his limited experience inside this season.
Obviously, all of the numbers listed above do not directly indicate how the Vikings will perform against Cox tomorrow. But it does provide a bit of insight into how they match up with Philadelphia’s best defensive player. Another interesting note: Despite their relative lack of success against these players individually, the Vikings are 5-2 in these games. And only once did they fail to score 20 points (week two in Pittsburgh).
Cox probably will get his tomorrow; he does virtually every week. But the Vikings have shown the ability to make due without a strong interior run game. And as we saw last week, the Eagles are a bit susceptible to outside runs and screens.
The point is, the old adage of “run it directly at the strongest player” should probably not be Shurmur’s mantra this week. Cox will control the line but that does not mean he will control the entire game.
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