Brandon Brooks

Why Eagles aren't fighting for respect against Vikings

Why Eagles aren't fighting for respect against Vikings

The Vikings finished 2017 with the No. 1 defense in the NFL, an achievement that’s correlated with a trip to the Super Bowl in each of the previous four seasons.

But all numbers and history lessons aside, the Eagles only need to be the better team Sunday to advance to the big game.

“We accept the challenge,” Rodney McLeod said Tuesday. “They’re the No. 1 defense statistically maybe, or people think that. We also think we’re the best defense."

The Vikings were dominant by just about every significant measure — second against both the run and pass, third in the red zone and the greatest third-down defense ever. Or at least the greatest third-down defense for as long as the statistic was tracked, since 1991.

“I think they are the best defense we've faced this year,” Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said.

The Eagles are hardly plebeians, finishing the regular season ranked fourth in scoring defense and yards allowed. It was only a week ago they limited the Falcons to 10 points in a divisional round playoff game.

So why does it feel like the unit will have something to prove again in the conference championship Sunday?

“We don’t care,” safety Corey Graham said. “We’re past that. We’re at the point right now, we win a game, you’re in the Super Bowl. If you’re still fighting for respect at this point, it doesn’t really matter.

So the Eagles will not be playing the disrespect card this week, at least not the defense specifically. The unit might hold up its end of the bargain. The real question is how an Eagles offense led by Nick Foles will fare against a strong opponent.

The Vikings have Pro Bowl players on every level of the defense. There’s Everson Griffen, who has 14.0 sacks and counting including playoffs, and Linval Joseph. Anthony Barr possesses the versatility to drop into coverage or attack the line of scrimmage. And Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith headline the league’s stingiest secondary.

“They have a very talented group and a great secondary,” Torrey Smith said. “When you see that, oftentimes there’s great guys up front. You see the big men up front handling their business as well, so as always, we’re going to have our hands full.”

Unlike last week against the Falcons, who use the same Cover-3 concept the majority of the time, the Vikings like to challenge opponents with different looks.

“They mix it up,” Reich said. “The statistics will say it's a little bit more zone, but they have a way of mixing things up, throwing a lot of different variations of even a three-deep zone at you, and then when they play man, they are going to mix in man.”

Though head coach Mike Zimmer is also known for overloading the A-gaps with pressure up the middle, this Vikings defense is so stout, blitzing is not as prevalent.

“I think they are the best defense we've faced this year," Reich said, "and I think one of the reasons why is they can get pressure with four and cover with seven."

In 2016, the Eagles faced a Vikings' defense with nearly identical personnel. The offense generated 13 of the Eagles’ 21 points in the win, driving into the red zone and across the goal line for a touchdown only once.

A lot changed for the Eagles since then too, but the film from the last meeting can still prove useful.

“You always go back and look what they did last year and how you handled it, things you did well, things you didn’t,” Brandon Brooks said. “Then you match that with different personnel they have this year and go from there.

“The biggest thing is that’s why the game is played on Sunday. We’re gonna see.”

The irony in Eagles' intense practices

The irony in Eagles' intense practices

Updated: 7:09 p.m.

For a couple hours, it was August again. It was training camp again. And the Eagles were getting back to basics.

The pads went on, the starters faced the starters, there was plenty of trash talking, and the Eagles on Wednesday began the process of trying to rediscover some lost magic with what the players said was a very physical, intense practice.

Rare or even unprecedented for this time of year.

"That was a very intense practice," Jason Kelce said. "We haven’t had one like that since training camp. On the verge of too intense.

"No fights, but whenever you go really, really hard, guys fall down, and you never want guys on the ground because you can get guys hurt, but I think we got a lot of really, really good work in."

The Eagles go into the playoffs having not played a complete game on both sides of the football in a month.

Since their nine-game winning streak, they lost by 14 to the Seahawks, won three games despite a bad day by either the offense or defense in all three, then lost, 6-0, to the Cowboys Sunday, when many of the starters either didn't play or were limited.

They still finished with 13 wins, the best record in football. But in an effort to get their mojo back, the Eagles got back to basics Wednesday and the players said they expect to again Thursday before taking three days off.

“It was intense, for sure," Zach Ertz said. "Most intense practice we’ve had probably in a long time. Full pads, 1’s against the 1’s. Since the season started, we’d only have a couple plays here and there during Wednesday and Thursday practices, 1’s against the 1’s whereas today the whole practice was.

"We did a lot of situation work, trying to get those situations with Nick (Foles), give him the opportunity to go through them with us. I thought it was a great practice. It was really intense. A lot of trash talking, as you would expect when the guys are heated like that."

Doug Pederson said Tuesday his so-called player's council — a group of veterans he meets with regularly — requested tougher practices this week.

There's an irony the Eagles worked all year to earn a bye week, and they're using it for some of their toughest practices of the year.

But they all believe this is what they need.

“We’ve had a little bit of time to rest," Lane Johnson said. "Even last week, we had a few walkthroughs compared to what we normally do in a regular week, and I think it was time to get a good practice in the bank, and that’s what we need, man.

"Get the physicality back so when the game comes, it’s not foreign to us.

"This is the second wave. This is what the whole season boils down to, so we want to be ready. We weren’t happy with our performances and, believe you me, we’re working hard to fix it. Just try to simulate a game and make it as hard as we can on ourselves."

It says a lot about this team that they preferred to work during the bye rather than go through a couple light workouts or even have days off.

But this is a team that hasn't been in the playoffs since 2013 and hasn't won a playoff game since 2008.

It embraces the work.

"We’re eager," Ertz said. "We haven’t tasted postseason success yet, and we’re just eager for that first postseason win since I’ve been here. We haven’t had postseason success really since Brent (Celek) started playing.

"The guys are hungry."

The Eagles open postseason play at the Linc at 4:30 p.m. a week from Saturday against either the Panthers, Falcons or Saints. If they win, they'll host the NFC Championship game Jan. 21.

And if they're still playing, they'll likely look back to this week as a turning point.

"I think it’ll help all of us," Johnson said. "It felt like training camp out there. It was good. That’s what we need. Not getting the performances that we wanted, so that’s what we needed to do."

Signings
The Eagles on Wednesday evening signed four players to reserve/futures contracts: P Cameron Johnston, TE Adam Zaruba, CB Elie Bouka and WR Marquess Wilson. These players don't count against the 53-man roster and aren't eligible to play in the playoffs, but they can be with the team in OTAs and next training camp. They will count against the next 90-man roster. 

Zaruba and Johnston were with the team last offseason. Zaruba is the former Canadian rugby star, who tried to make the Eagles as a tight end. At 6-5, 260, he's a pretty good athlete, but is still learning the game. He's a name to watch.

NBC Sports Philadelphia's Dave Zangaro contributed to this story.

First-timers headline Eagles named to Pro Bowl

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USA Today Images

First-timers headline Eagles named to Pro Bowl

In the middle of the NovaCare Complex, there's a hallway the Eagles walk through every day to get from the team auditorium to the locker room. 

On one side of the long hallway are photos of every Eagle to ever make a Pro Bowl, with the years listed next to them. 

There are going to be some new faces in that hallway pretty soon. 

Because of the six Eagles to be named to Pro Bowl rosters this season, four are first-timers. It should come as no surprise the Eagles, sitting at 12-2, will be pretty well-represented in the annual all-star game. Only the Steelers (eight) have more Pro Bowlers. 

Carson Wentz (more on him here), Zach Ertz, Lane Johnson and Brandon Brooks are first-year Pro Bowlers, while Fletcher Cox and Malcolm Jenkins are veterans, heading back to the game. 

This is the first time since 2004 — Ike Reese, Brian Westbrook, Michael Lewis and Lito Sheppard — the Eagles have four first-time Pro Bowlers. 

• Can we finally call this a breakout season from Ertz? The 27-year-old has 63 catches for 719 yards and a career-high eight touchdown catches in just 12 games this season. Even after missing two games with injury, Ertz has doubled his previous career high in touchdowns and was clearly one of Wentz's favorite targets. While fan voting is just 1/3 of the entire procedure, Ertz finished with 486,011 fan votes, more than any other NFC tight end. 

“It's rewarding," Ertz said in a statement released by the team. "I think any person wants to see the 'hard work' pay off, but at the end of the day I've had catches and yards and touchdowns before but I've never had a team like this. The ultimate goal is to win football games in this league. If you don't win, nothing really matters. That's what's been so rewarding this year. I've been a really big contributor on a really good football team. I think that whole process has been really fulfilling.”

• This season, Johnson has been on a mission to prove himself after serving a 10-game suspension for a second PED violation last year. What he's proven is he's one of the best offensive tackles in the NFL. It's a little rare for right tackles to get this type of recognition, but Johnson, 27, certainly deserves it. Playing on the right side has made him go against some of the top pass-rushers in the NFL, like Von Miller, Ryan Kerrigan and Demarcus Lawrence. Johnson hasn't been shy about his ambition to be named to the Pro Bowl this season. With his selection, Johnson hit a $250,000 escalator in his contract. 

“It’s been one of my goals to be called one of the best in the world at what you do, so it’s pretty special,” Johnson said. 

• Brooks, 28, came to the Eagles as a free agent last season and has really proven his worth in 2017. He's been an absolute rock for the Eagles at right guard. After missing two games in 2016 with what ended up being anxiety issues, Brooks has very publicly talked about his problem in an attempt to de-stigmatize them. On the field, he's been tremendous. The most impressive thing about him might be his athleticism as the biggest player on the roster. With his selection, Brooks hit a $250,000 escalator in his contract. 

“I was excited but I come from a unit where we all are straight brothers," Brooks said. "So it’s not like an individual accolade. It’s (offensive line coach Jeff) Stoutland coaching me up, getting me right, refining my technique and things like that. Playing alongside Lane Johnson and Jason Kelce helps tremendously and Carson playing well and making plays. So although it’s kind of an individual honor, I wouldn’t be able to do it without playing in between these two guys and guys making plays in the backfield, too.”

• While he doesn't pile up a ton of stats at his defensive tackle position, go ask a bunch of offensive guards about Cox. They'll all say the same thing. He's still an absolute beast. Now, is he worth $100 million? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, Cox is a huge part of the Eagles' defense and an absolute game-wrecker inside. The 27-year-old has 5½ sacks and is heading back to his third consecutive Pro Bowl. 

• It's hard to quantify just how important Jenkins is to the Eagles' defense. He barely ever leaves the field on defense and even contributes on special teams. He plays safety, nickel corner and even plays linebacker at times. He's one of the most respected veterans on the team. This is his second Pro Bowl after making it through after being an alternate in 2015. This year, Jenkins has two interceptions and eight passes defensed. With his selection, Jenkins hit a $100,000 escalator in his contract. 

While six Eagles made the Pro Bowl, there were a couple pretty obvious snubs. Defensive end Brandon Graham and center Jason Kelce were certainly deserving. Special teamer Kamu Grugier-Hill also had a pretty strong case. 

Graham, who leads the team with 9½ sacks, deserved to make his first Pro Bowl roster. Aside from those 9½ sacks, he's been the Eagles' most disruptive defensive lineman and has been a force every week. 

Kelce has been playing at a higher level than he did in 2016, when he went to his second career Pro Bowl. He was one of the players offensive coordinator Frank Reich praised when asked about Pro Bowl-worthy players. 

And Grugier-Hill seemed to have a real shot at making the Pro Bowl as a special teams ace. He leads the Eagles in special teams snaps and has made some really big plays this season. 

This year's Pro Bowl will take place on Jan. 28 in Orlando, Florida. The Eagles hope none of their Pro Bowlers will be available for the game. They hope to be preparing for the Super Bowl that weekend.