Opinions

Divisional Round Preview: Saints vs Eagles

Michael DeMocker, NOLA.com

Good morning, Who Dat Nation. It is finally game day and your New Orleans Saints are just hours away from kicking off in their first playoff game of the 2018 season. Before that happens, I wanted to give you a preview of what to expect. My normal writing has been post-game analysis with my “Saints and Sinners” column, but for the playoffs (and possibly next year if y’all enjoy this), I wanted to contribute some pre-game work to help get you guys informed.

This Divisional Round matchup will be a re-match of the Week 12 contest in which the New Orleans Saints dominated the Philadelphia Eagles with a 48-7 victory. A lot has changed for the Eagles since then, as Nick Foles is now under center at QB and the team has won six of their last seven games, including their 16-15 win in the Wild Card Round over the Chicago Bears. With Philadelphia playing much better since falling to 4-6 after that blowout, it is hard to fathom a similar outcome. Let’s dig deeper and see why we can expect a different type of game.

Saints Offense vs Eagles Defense

Saints Team Offense

  • Total Offense: 379.2 yards per game (8th in NFL)

  • Scoring Offense: 31.5 points per game (3rd)

  • Pass Offense: 252.6 yards per game (12th)

  • Rush Offense: 126.6 yards per game (6th)

Eagles Team Defense

  • Total Defense: 366.2 yards per game (23rd)

  • Scoring Defense: 21.8 points per game (12th)

  • Pass Defense: 269.3 yards per game (30th)

  • Rush Defense: 96.9 yards per game (7th)

Pass Offense

When these teams got together back in November, it was a complete aerial show, led by Drew Brees and Tre’Quan Smith. Brees threw for 363 yards and 4 touchdowns, while recording a near-perfect QB rating of 153.2 and not turning the ball over or getting sacked at all. Smith led all receivers with 10 receptions for 157 yards and a touchdown, by far his best game of his career. Michael Thomas came in behind him with 4 receptions for 92 yards and a touchdown. Although he averages 5.4 catches per game out of the backfield, Alvin Kamara was held to just one catch. That one catch was quite impactful, though, going for a 37 yard touchdown on one of Brees’ prettiest throws of the season. All in all, Drew and the offense were able to throw the ball around at will, keeping the Eagles secondary on their heels for the entirety of the game.

Can we expect more of the same today? It is hard to ever “expect” a performance as flawless as that one on November 18th, but I do believe the potential for another big day through the air is there. Philadelphia’s secondary is led by one of the best safeties in the game with Malcolm Jenkins, but they have had to dig deep in their depth chart at the cornerback position. The good news for the Eagles is that those guys that have been forced in to playing time have had quite a few games to find their footing and get settled in. It has been clear that they have improved, but at he end of the day, we are still talking about guys who were #4 and #5 options in the beginning of the season. Avonte Maddox has assumed the role of #1 cornerback, but got torched by Allen Robinson just last week. Robinson finished the game with 10 receptions, 146 yards, and a touchdown, with 6 of those receptions and 120 of those yards coming while lined up across from Maddox. Robinson has not done much this year, but was able to beat Maddox routinely. Sydney Jones was an early second round pick by Philadelphia in 2017 and is questionable to play due to nursing a hamstring injury. Rasul Douglas will be lined up at the other cornerback position and is their team leader with 3 interceptions.

Whether or not the Eagles can get to Drew Brees will be the biggest area to watch in this offensive vs defensive matchup. Whether Philadelphia runs man or zone defense, it is clear that New Orleans receivers should have opportunities to make plays against this pieced together secondary. The pass rush from guys like Fletcher Cox, Michael Bennett, Chris Long, and Brandon Graham will be the most crucial aspect if they hope to prevent Brees from having another day like he had in Week 12. Cox is one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL and leads his team with 10.5 sacks. The other three have a combined 19.5 and will shoulder the burden of trying to disrupt Brees and keep him from picking apart their defense. Considering the 17 times Drew has been sacked is second least in the entire NFL, this match-up presents a problem for Philadelphia. I believe Brees will have time to sit back and do his thing, leading to a big day for Michael Thomas with something along the lines of 10 receptions, 150 yards, and a touchdown.

Rush Offense

Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara gashed the Philadelphia run defense in their first match-up. Ingram ran for 103 yards on 16 carries, while Kamara added in 71 yards on 13 carries. Those numbers combined for a 6.0 yards per carry average. They did that without Terron Armstead, too, who had injured his pectoral against the Cincinnati Bengals the week before. Armstead is back and 100% ready to roll, along with the other four starters who have not seen much time together since the left tackle sustained that injury in Week 11.

The Eagles lack much of a run-stopping presence on their defense. Fletcher Cox is a beast in the middle of that defensive line, but he is just one man that is surrounded by mostly pass rushers. The advantage in the trenches, especially with the Saints offensive line fully healthy, is clearly in favor of the black and gold. Malcolm Jenkins is Philadelphia’s leading tackler from his free safety position, which is never ideal. Look for Nigel Bradham and Jordan Hicks to be the most active Eagles against the run from their linebacker positions, but if the Saints offensive line is able to dominate and get to the second level, it could be a long day for those two.

Sean Payton came out looking to establish the run when these teams met back in Week 12 and that led to the passing game becoming wide open. On their first three drives of that game, the Saints ran the ball on 9 of their 14 first down plays. Whether Payton decides to stay balanced or focus on either the run or the pass early on in this game, I do believe that Ingram and Kamara are set up for solid games. Philadelphia is simply not strong enough in their secondary to keep more men close to the line of scrimmage, so they will have to drop linebackers further back to prevent Brees from pushing the ball down field. When they do that, New Orleans offensive line is far superior than Philadelphia’s defensive line and should be able to open plenty of holes for the dynamic duo to find.

Saints Defense vs Eagles Offense

Saints Team Defense

  • Total Defense: 349.1 yards per game (14th in NFL)

  • Scoring Defense: 22.1 points per game (14th)

  • Pass Defense: 268.9 yards per game (29th)

  • Rush Defense: 80.2 yards per game (2nd)

Eagles Team Offense

  • Total Offense: 365.3 yards per game (14th)

  • Scoring Offense: 22.9 points per game (18th)

  • Pass Offense: 267.2 yards per game (7th)

  • Rush Offense: 98.1 yards per game (28th)

Pass Defense

Although the numbers are available to look at, Philadelphia’s passing attack is much different than the one that contributed to majority of the averages. The style of offense run when Nick Foles has taken over is completely different than what Carson Wentz does. We can sit here and look at the stats on this side of the ball from when these two teams played in the regular season, but they are almost worthless. For instance, the Saints sacked Wentz three times in that game. I would be very surprised if they do the same to Foles, simply because Doug Pederson’s game plan with their #9 under center is a lot of quick throws from the shotgun. Should New Orleans hold a decent lead in the second half, Pederson would have no choice but to have Foles look for more plays down field and that is when the opportunity to get to him will arise.

If Dennis Allen chooses to defend the Eagles offense like he did in the first meeting, Marshon Lattimore will be assigned to Alshon Jeffery. I have been wondering all week if they will decide to go in that direction, again, though. Clearly it worked, as Jeffery only had 4 receptions for 33 yards, but Eli Apple has typically had more success on wide receivers that are bigger and possess less speed. Allen and secondary coach Aaron Glenn will likely go with worked last time, but keep an eye out to see if Apple sees any time on Jeffery. The big matchup to watch is the Eagles tight ends vs the Saints linebackers. Zach Ertz was second in the league with 116 receptions, which set the NFL record for most catches by a TE in a season. New Orleans did a fine job against him last time, though, holding him to just 2 receptions for 15 yards. He did not even see his first reception/target until under 30 seconds left in the first half. Dallas Goedert is their second dangerous TE, who has created matchup issues for other teams, too. The Saints did a phenomenal job on him, as well, holding him without a catch on three targets. A lot of the credit for locking down those two goes to Demario Davis and Alex Anzalone, who have proved that they can cover from their linebacker position. It will be on them, once again, to help prevent the Eagles from taking advantage of one of their favorite matchups. Golden Tate will be a player to watch out of the slot, likely seeing PJ Williams for most of the day. He has dominated the Saints in past years, but has yet to really have a great performance in his eight games since being traded to Philadelphia. Keep an eye on Darren Sproles, too, who missed the last game between these two teams with an injury. In our few years of watching him in black and gold, we know just how dangerous he can be out of the backfield.

Rush Defense

Although the run game is where Philadelphia scored their only points in the regular season matchup, their rushing attack, as a whole, is really just non-existent. They are 28th in the league in rushing offense with just 98.1 yards per game. Josh Adams was their leading rusher with just 511 yards on the season. This is the key difference in terms of personnel and what the Eagles did last year with Nick Foles under center compared to this year. Last year, they had guys like Jay Ajayi and Legarrette Blount to help make their RPOs (run/pass options) effective. With the lack of a rushing attack, Foles and his offense are mostly limited to short throws to try and put consistent drives together.

Considering how great the Saints have been against the run this season, along with the Eagles’ struggles, I can not see a scenario in which Philadelphia gets much going on the ground. Look for them to use their short passing game to aid their rushing attack, much like Sean Payton and the Saints used to do when they would struggle to run the ball 3 or 4 years ago.

Prediction

It has been an odd week of media coverage on this game. We’ve seen everything from experts picking the Saints and acknowledging that they are still the team to beat, talking heads falling in to the Nick Foles mystique and talking like he’s an actual magician, and even some players/reporters on the Eagles side trying to play the victim card by claiming that the Saints were disrespectful by winning 48-7 back in the regular season. All in all, I am ready for all of the crap to be over with. I can’t wait for 3:40 pm when the two teams take the field and the football starts to do the talking. With that being said, I believe that the Saints are just too good for the Eagles in this matchup. I am not buying in on the Foles hype. It’s the second round of the playoffs and any team that is still alive deserves respect, but I think Payton, Brees, and the black and gold have good success.

Saints – 31

Eagles – 16

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