Vikings Kearse-d by defensive wrinkle
PHILADELPHIA -- The cover of the official game program, being hawked by vendors for several blocks around Lincoln Financial Field here on Monday night, seemed to augur what was about to transpire in the prime-time matchup of high-profile NFC franchises.
There, on the front, was a menacing photo of Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Jevon Kearse, and a headline that could have served as equal parts premonition and prediction: "The Freak Comes Out at Night."
As even most casual fans know, "The Freak" is Kearse's longtime nickname, a testimony to his unique athletic tools and penchant for wreaking havoc on an opposition pass protection scheme. What most spectators won't know, even those who witnessed every snap of the Monday game in person or in front of the television, was just how much Kearse helped determine the outcome.
In a game that was supposed to be highlighted by the presence of two big-play receivers, and the skills of the final two quarterbacks remaining from the celebrated but flawed first-round class of the 1999 draft, Kearse was all but an afterthought. His game stats, two tackles and no sacks, appear pedestrian at first blush.
But ask players from both sides of the Eagles' 27-16 victory who most affected the pace and play of the contest, and many would suggest it was Kearse. They would be right.
"We asked him to do some different things tonight, and he did them well," said Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. "We tried to throw a few new looks at them and, really, we wanted to get [Vikings quarterback Daunte] Culpepper out of the pocket. We went in feeling that was big. And, for the most part, we chased him around pretty good."
Culpepper, who is one of the NFL's most difficult quarterbacks to drag down because of the strength in his tree-trunk legs, was sacked four times, forced out of the pocket on at least a dozen other occasions, and unofficially hit eight times. Not surprisingly, Kearse, and a new wrinkle from Johnson's seemingly endless bag of defensive trickery, were huge.
For this game, Johnson installed a new front that he dubbed "Oklahoma," with three ends on the field at the same time. Most times when Philadelphia went to the unusual look, the ends were Hugh Douglas and Derrick Burgess. And where was Kearse aligned in the off-beat front? Playing as a middle linebacker. Or sometimes as a standup outside 'backer. In some instances, had Kearse retreated a step or two, he could have been a safety.
"What they did," acknowledged Culpepper, "was to make us find him before we could block him. He was all over the place. It was like he had a [clone] or something."
Early on, Kearse put consistent pressure on Culpepper, and the Eagles end unofficially had three hurries in the first half. As the game wore on, Minnesota coaches routinely used double-teams to try to blunt Kearse, and that was particularly true after Vikings starting right tackle Mike Rosenthal exited with a sprained foot. Even when he wasn't all that involved in a play, Kearse was a factor.
The Eagles had toyed with the "Oklahoma" front a bit in training camp, but did not deploy it in their season-opening victory over the New York Giants, sort of holding it in abeyance for the chess match with the explosive Minnesota offense. Especially early in the game, the Vikings and Culpepper were confused by it.
"I don't think I've played linebacker since college," Kearse said, "but it was fun. You know me: My game is chasing the quarterback, putting the guy down. I probably missed too many sack chances tonight and, in that regard, I'm my own worst enemy. But, hey, you do what you have to do to win, and this was a big win."
The irony of the Johnson blueprint was that, because of the presence of Randy Moss, the rhetoric preceding the game was that Philadelphia might have to make alterations in its secondary to compensate for its young cornerbacks, Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown, both three-year veterans and first-year starters. It is a sign of the confidence that Johnson and his staff possess in the corners that the Eagles principally played Moss with their usual coverages.
Philadelphia plays a coverage scheme whose simplicity lies in its complexity. Usually the corners are in press coverage and, if an opponent doesn't attempt to go over the top of the secondary, the Eagles safeties are freed to support the run. Johnson probably added a bit more two-deep coverage for Monday's game, in an effort to force Culpepper to go underneath with most of his passes, and the gambit succeeded famously.
Not once did the Vikings try to get the ball deep to Moss, who had promised to come here and take on the role as Philly-buster, but who finished with eight benign catches for 69 yards and one touchdown, a four-yarder that didn't come until 3:32 remained.
The other half of the much-ballyhooed wide receiver showdown, Terrell Owens, also had a relatively quiet night until his 45-yard touchdown grab (replays suggested he did not have control of the ball but, in one of their many gaffes, the Vikings did not challenge the ruling) nudged the Eagles into a comfortable 24-9 fourth-quarter lead. In the battle of top-shelf quarterbacks, Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb got the better of Culpepper.
But it was the staunch Philadelphia defense, which allowed plenty of yardage but just one touchdown, that provided the biggest edge.
"A lot of people talk about that 'bend but don't break' stuff, but we live it," said strong safety Michael Lewis. "We're not going to let you in the end zone, plain and simple. You might move the ball on us, man, but you won't move it where it counts."
Indeed, when the Vikings drove the ball into the Philadelphia side of the field, it was as if someone had issued the Eagles a direct challenge. Of Minnesota's 70 offensive plays, an amazing 43 of them came on the plus-side of the 50-yard line. The Vikings had 29 snaps from inside the Philadelphia 30-yard line and 13 that originated inside the 20-yard line.
There were five Minnesota possessions of 10 plays or more and six drives on which the Vikings gained 50-plus yards.
But Culpepper fumbled away a touchdown when he lost the ball at the one-yard line. And until Moss' late-game score, all the Vikings could eke out was a trio of field goals from the ageless Morten Andersen. When the Vikings were cautious with their play calls, the Eagles, especially Johnson, were daring with theirs.
For his part, Kearse wouldn't mind getting back to just rushing the quarterback, notching his usual complement of sack opportunities. But the diversity of the Eagles defense, and the devious mind of Johnson, could allow The Freak to discover even more manners of torturing opponents.
"That's fine with me." Kearse said. "As long as I make an impact, it doesn't matter what my [individual] numbers say, you know. 'Cause no matter where they put me, I'm going to be a force."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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