Make no mistake, Mike Zimmer is a good coach. Zimmer has the fourth-best win percentage among qualified coaches in the NFL, despite being without his starting quarterback and starting running back for about 75% of the games he’s coached.
Pat Shurmur is a good coach, too. Last year, Shurmur turned a career journeyman into the #1 quarterback in the NFL by DVOA en route to earning AP Assistant Coach of the Year and winning a head coaching gig.
But there is zero question as to who was the best coach on the field in the 2017 NFC Championship Game. Doug Pederson and the Philadelphia Eagles outplayed, outschemed and outcoached the Vikings en route to an embarrasing 38-7 shellacking.
The Eagles’ Offense Thoroughly Outplayed the Vikings’ Defense
Nick Foles entered the NFC Championship coming off three straight awful games against the Raiders, Falcons and Cowboys. His PFF grade entering the game was 49.3, which ranked 39th at the time, right between DeShone Kizer (50.8) and Brock Osweiler (47.7).
He finished the game with the third-best single-game grade of any quarterback from the entire season.
When a quarterback is playing as well as Foles did, there’s almost nothing a defense can do. Take the 41-yard flea flicker touchdown:
Yes, this is a great call from Doug Pederson that punished a defense that overplayed the run once they saw the handoff. Yes, Torrey Smith absolutely burns Trae Waynes here. But there is one Vikings player here who isn’t fooled by the handoff and does his job: Harrison Smith keeps his eyes on the QB, never bites on the handoff, breaks out of his backpedal to help out on the deep ball… But Foles just throws an absolutely perfect backshoulder throw, and there’s just nothing Harrison Smith can do.
Hear it from Xavier Rhodes:
Foles was making great throws; they were making great catches. Like one play, a toss-back play, Foles threw it in the end zone, and they caught it backside shoulder. It was a great throw and catch. Situations like that, we can’t do anything about.
And it wasn’t just Foles, either. Every Eagles receiver was consistently beating the Vikings’ defensive backs. Zach Ertz and Torrey Smith had their highest-graded games of the season. Conversely, Harrison Smith and Trae Waynes had their lowest-graded games of the season, and Xavier Rhodes and Terence Newman had their second-lowest-graded games of the season. On this 53-yard touchdown pass, Alshon Jeffery just destroys Terence Newman with a post-go double move:
Newman leans into Jeffery at the break of the post route, and Jeffery makes him pay by using Newman’ body to redirect upfield for a wide open touchdown.
This next play comes on third-and-six. Foles feels the blitz coming and checks down to Clement in the flat. Barr has him dead-to-rights for the third-down stop, but he overpursues, can’t make the tackle, and Clement has the first down:
That third-down conversion set up the long touchdown to Jeffery above.
One thing in common with the plays above? The Vikings defensive line fails to get home. Part of that was the Eagles offensive line playing well, buying Foles time for these deep passes. But an even bigger part of it was Foles evading rushers in the pocket and getting rid of the ball at the last split second:
The Vikings were actually getting a good amount of pressure throughout the game, but Foles just had eyes in the back of his head. There simply wasn’t anything the Vikings could do: good pocket presence beats good pressure, and a good throw beats good coverage.
Mike Zimmer Was Smart, but Doug Pederson Was Smarter
The Eagles got the ball at the end of the first half with less than 30 seconds to drive 80 yards downfield. Mike Zimmer and Harrison Smith knew the time on the clock, so they were aggressively playing the boundaries. Doug Pederson and Zach Ertz knew that Zimmer knew this, so Pederson called up a play designed to punish exactly that:
99 times out of 100, this play is a quick out designed to move the ball 10 yards while only costing a couple seconds.
But Doug Pederson is a 1-in-a-100 coach.
Pederson has Ertz run an out-and-up double move—a route most coaches would consider too risky and time-consuming for this situation. Harrison Smith knows the down and distance, knows his team is down in the playoffs, knows that this is very likely a quick out, and he undercuts the route, gambling for a pick. Pederson knew that that might happen, and next thing you know, the Eagles are kicking a field goal to end the half with even more points on the board.
That’s the story of Zimmer versus Pederson in a nutshell. Zimmer came in with a great game plan and was making the right tactical adjustments. But Pederson was just two-steps ahead of him every time.
Another great example of that came in the first quarter. One of Mike Zimmer’s signature play calls is “sugaring the A-gaps”: having both linebackers show blitz to the left and to the right of the center. When the center makes the Mike call, identifying which of the two linebackers to block, Zimmer will often have that linebacker drop into coverage, while the other linebacker gets a free rushing lane.
Doug Pederson knew this. As Ben Goessling wrote back in January, the Eagles instead would “[point] at one linebacker and [block] the other one, effectively goading the Vikings into sending the blitzer Philadelphia wanted.” See how it neutered Zimmer’s one-LB blitz on this play:
One final example of Pederson’s brilliant chicanery comes on the second Alshon Jeffery touchdown.
The Eagles were facing 3rd-and-goal from the five-yard line: too far too run; too crowded to pass. With such a tight space to cover, defenses typically rely on zone coverage, leaving almost nowhere for quarterbacks to throw.
So how did Pederson (and John DeFilippo) scheme their receiver open in such a tight space? With a genius flurry of pre-snap motion:
The Eagles first come out in a power I formation, then Foles motions the entire team to move into a trips left shotgun formation. And as the Vikings scramble to communicate their new assignments, Foles puts Jeffery in motion for a third time. Pederson and Jeffery know the Vikings are likely playing zone in the narrow space, so Jeffery stems his route outside towards the DB, then cuts inside, boxing Waynes out and splitting the zones. Foles throws the pass high where only Jeffery can get it, and it’s officially a 38-7 blowout.
The Vikings Had Zero Answers for the Run-Pass Option
The run-pass option (or “RPO”) is a run play where the offensive line run blocks, but the wide receivers run routes, and the quarterback has the option to pass the ball (or run with it himself) before he hands the ball off to the running back. The RPO became a signature part of the Eagles’ offense in 2017 (although it’s really just one small part of what makes the Eagles’ offense so effective). Hear Doug Pederson explain how it works and why it works here (or, if you have NFL Game Pass, see the full version here), including one brilliant example from the NFC Championship Game where Pederson runs an inside zone RPO on 3rd-and-1 with a pick play to take advantage of man coverage for a big third down conversion.
The Eagles scored a lot of points off their deep passing profiled above, but they used the RPO to neuter Zimmer’s defensive scheming and move the chains. A perfect example comes from the Eagles’ first offensive drive of the game:
The run play here is a “pin-pull sweep”—Kelce and Brooks “pull” (i.e. run out behind the line to block even farther down the play), while the rest of the lineman try and “pin” and seal their defender inside. It’s an aggressive outside run that stretches the defense towards the sideline.
And that’s exactly what Pederson wants, too: the entire defense running towards the (wrong) sideline. Because once Agholor goes in motion, Foles knows pre-snap that Agholor will have no one on him on the other side of the field. The fake handoff sucks eight Vikings defenders completely out of the play, setting up Agholor in motion with 10 yards of green ahead of him. If he can make one man miss, he’s off to the races. Sendejo doesn’t miss—he makes a great read and tackle—but even so, the Eagles still nab an easy six yards, and Pederson knows he has a recipe to outscheme the vaunted Vikings’ defense for the rest of the game.
This next RPO relies on a post-snap read of Harrison Smith:
This is a simple inside-zone run play, except Alshon Jeffery is running a slant to split the zone between Harrison Smith in the flat and Xavier Rhodes in the deep third. Like a play action pass, the inside zone run sucks Harrison Smith down to hold the backside edge, and as soon as Foles sees Smith bite on the run, he pulls the handoff to hit Jeffery for an easy 9 yards. It’s really a simple but effective way to hold Smith captive and neutralize the Vikings’ best player.
One of the simplest ways to counter RPOs is to play more man coverage—the two RPOs featured above are probably not as successful if there is a man covering the targeted receiver. Doug Pederson knew this as well, so when Zimmer started countering with more man coverage, Pederson called an RPO with a pick play designed to beat man coverage:
This is an outside zone run, and like the pin-pull play featured above, it’s designed to stretch the play to the (wrong) sideline. Alshon Jeffery is running a quick slant on the other side of the field, while Agholor sets the pick, running straight towards Xavier Rhodes trying to wall him off from his man.
Pre-snap, Foles sees the two receivers up against two corners in press along with a single-high safety, so he likes the numbers there. Post-snap, Foles confirms man coverage and throws the quick slant for 10 yards. Once again, Pederson is two steps ahead of Zimmer.
Pat Shurmur called a great game, but the Vikings’ offense failed to execute at key moments
The final score belies how good of a game Pat Shurmur called. The Vikings actually outgained the Eagles on the ground—a big surprise considering that Dalvin Cook was out, the offensive line was banged up, and the Vikings’ below-average run game was up against the #2 rush defense in the NFL by DVOA. And in the passing game, Pat Shurmur was scheming his receivers as wide open as you’ll ever see in the playoffs:
See each of those plays in video form as well below:
As you can see above, the Vikings’ offense got their opportunities. They marched down the field to the end zone three times in the game, not including the opening touchdown drive. They came away from those three opportunities with zero points.
Perhaps the only big mistake Pat Shurmur made all game came on the Vikings’ first red zone opportunity. The Vikings were down 14-7 in the redzone on 3rd-and-6, and the Eagles were showing blitz. Shurmur asked David Morgan to slice (i.e. cut across behind the offensive line) and cut block Derek Barnett:
But Morgan wasn’t quick enough and whiffed on the cut block, leaving Barnett virtually untouched to the quarterback. He stripped the ball, the Eagles recovered, and the Vikings walked away empty-handed.
But that’s not even the worst of it. Shurmur actually called a great route combination here on the right—kind of a smash concept, with Diggs running a dig route on the outside and Rudolph running a corner route from the slot. Rudolph stems his route inside, holding the safety in place and the corner in his backpedal, gives a quick head fake inside, then breaks to the corner:
He’s wide open. Keenum sees it, too. He’s in the act of throwing the game-tying touchdown pass as he gets sacked. If Keenum had just a split-second longer, the game is tied 14-14 with three minutes left in the half, and the momentum shifts entirely. But because of the protection call and failed cut block, Keenunm is instead strip-sacked, the Eagles score on the long bomb to Jeffery on the very next drive, and the Vikings never recover.
Shurmur dialed up another great play call on the next trip to the red zone. On 3rd-and-goal from the 7-yard-line, Shurmur has Diggs and Thielen run a corner-dig combination:
Diggs’ threat of a corner/fade in the back of the end zone pulls both defensive backs along with him, leaving Thielen wide open just two yards out from the end zone. Had Keenum thrown the ball on time, Thielen likely would have been able to punch the ball in. But Keenum’s throw is not just late; it’s uncatchable. The Vikings would go on to turn the ball over on downs.
On their last red zone opportunity, Keenum saw Thielen had a one-on-one matchup against Ronald Darby. Thielen didn’t get open on the route, but Keenum forced him the ball anyway:
The pass comes in behind Thielen, straight at Darby. Thielen is forced to play defensive back and try to break the interception up, and he does, except that when the ball pops out, Corey Graham is there to pick the ball off as well.
The pick-six earlier in the game came as a result of the same problem: Keenum staring down Thielen:
Kyle Rudolph is wide open in the middle of the field, but Keenum only ever looks towards Thielen and tries to force him the ball even while he’s bracketed in coverage. He’s hit as he throws, however, as Chris Long is just too quick off the snap for Rashod Hill, and the pass sails into the hands of Patrick Robinson, who returns it for a pick six.
The Vikings had their opportunities on offense. Guys were getting schemed wide open and were winning their routes. But a few crucial errors at critical times meant all those opportunities went to waste.
There is no denying that Doug Pederson and the Eagles outschemed Mike Zimmer, Pat Shurmur and the Minnesota Vikings. Zimmer didn’t have much of an answer for Pederson’s deep passing or RPO’s. And it’s hard to lose a playoff game 38-7 without some coaching blunders.
But with how good Nick Foles was playing that night, and how the Vikings were playing—missing tackles, misreading option plays, and blowing coverages while bungling every opportunity on offense—no coach could have stopped the Eagles. They were far and away the better team that night. Only time will tell if the Vikings can learn from their mistakes.