MINNEAPOLIS — It used to a staple in the Philadelphia Eagles’ offense, just as the cheeseburger is in coach Andy Reid’s diet.
If you were playing a game against Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook, you knew they were going to try to pick you apart with a variety of screen plays.
Lately, however, the screens have been scarce. Perhaps it’s because Pro Bowl guard Shawn Andrews is not around to lead the way. Or maybe Westbrook has an even better explanation.
“I think a lot of teams have focused on trying to take our screen game away,” he said.
That’s not what the Minnesota Vikings were doing Sunday in the Eagles’ 26-14 playoff victory at the Metrodome. They were rushing McNabb with blitzing linebackers and aggressive play from their defensive linemen and they were having success, sacking the quarterback three times and holding the Eagles’ offense to three field goals through 53 minutes.
But with just under seven minutes remaining in the game, and the Eagles clinging to the same two-point lead they had built in the first half, Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg decided it was time to dust off one of their old favorites.
“We called that play exactly at the right time,” Westbrook said.
And it worked as planned even though things were a little shaky at the start.
Westbrook slipped behind the charging Vikings defenders, McNabb dumped the football to his running back, and 71 yards later the Eagles had given themselves some breathing room on their way to an NFC wild-card playoff victory.
“The offensive line did a great job of getting out there on the screen … and then Correll (Buckhalter) threw a great block and the receivers escorted me into the end zone,” Westbrook said.
That escort to the end zone included a ticket to the second round of the playoffs for the Eagles (10-6-1), who will play the New York Giants (12-4) for the third time this season Sunday at Giants Stadium.
Before Westbrook’s huge play, the Eagles running back had done next to nothing for an offense that was reasonably balanced in terms of the pass-to-run ratio, but entirely unbalanced in terms of production.
In short, the Eagles, like most teams when they play the Vikings, had trouble running, picking up 67 yards on 23 plays, with 27 of them coming on one run by Buckhalter.
Westbrook had just 30 yards on his first 16 touches.
“We were very patient,” Westbrook said. “Those guys were very aggressive on defense, taking away the run … We did a good job of throwing the ball down the field, but we were also patient and continued to run the ball and make them stay honest.”
Reid said it wasn’t difficult to keep calling plays for Westbrook.
“No, because somewhere he is going to hit one,” Reid said.
Westbrook’s 71-yard TD almost ended at the line of scrimmage because guard Nick Cole was in the running back’s way.
“That’s why I hopped to the side,” Cole said. “I didn’t even see him catch the ball, but I knew once Westbrook got out there, he was gone. Nobody was going to catch him. I just put my hands up.”
The Philadelphia defense did the rest, holding the Vikings scoreless in the second half.
Adrian Peterson, the NFL’s leading rusher, accounted for 83 yards on 20 carries and scored two touchdowns for Minnesota, but he had just eight carries for 17 yards in the second half.
“I felt if we could get ahead that it would turn into a passing game and I felt pretty good about ourselves in that situation,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said.
It wasn’t a passing game until Westbrook scored, but when the Vikings were forced to rely on the right arm of quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, this game was decided.
By halftime, the Vikings had become the sixth team this season to rush for more than 100 yards against the Eagles, thanks to a 40-yard touchdown run by Peterson in the second quarter that turned a 6-0 Minnesota deficit into a 7-6 lead.
“We were in a run blitz and that one hurt us, but other than that we did OK,” Johnson said.
The Eagles responded with a nine-play, 59-yard drive that ended with kicker David Akers’ third field goal of the first half, a 31-yarder that made it 9-7.
Asante Samuel, forced out by an ailing hip for one play earlier in the second quarter, intercepted a Jackson pass and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown as Philadelphia to a 16-7 lead.
“That’s what he has done his whole career,” Johnson said. “He has a knack for making plays like that. He’s a playmaker.”