Yong Kim | The Inquirer Daily News
It’s about to go down.The Saints are back in the Divisional round of the playoffs for the second year in a row, only this time they’re playing host. The Philadelphia Eagles are on their way to town riding high on some Nick Foles magic while the New Orleans Saints are prepared to hold steady behind the league’s second best rushing defense and one of the most potent and precise offensive attacks in memory. Both of those units will continue to be important keys to victory during today’s contest. Winner takes on the Los Angeles Rams for a bid to the Super Bowl. For New Orleans, this game isn’t the culmination of an outstanding season. It’s the next step to reaching that very pinnacle in February.
1. Capitalize on Extra Possessions
Last week against the Bears, Nick Foles through two interceptions in back-to-back possessions during the first half. Off those two turnovers, the only two of the game for either team, the Bears walked away with three points. THREE. If they would have turned those takeaways into 14 or even just 10 points, they’d have won the Wildcard round against an offense that struggled to move the ball the first half of the game. If the Saints are able to be opportunistic on defense and get the ball back to their offense, Drew Brees and Krewe should have a better chance of turning those takeaways into points which could turn a one-point deficit into a nine- or 13-point win.
2. The Offensive Line is Healthy. Play Like it.
One of the highlights of this week aside from Sean Payton rolling in a pallet of over $200K in cash, was the fact that the entire O-Line practice and there are no injury designations ahead of the game. This means that all five of the Saints’s primary protectors will be available and starting. Armstead has missed a good bit of regular season action but came back briefly against the Steelers, Andrus Peat suffered a left-hand injury in Week 17, Ramczyk got banged up in the final weeks, and Warford missed Week 17 action. So with the time off for those that didn’t play or only partially played Week 17 and the first-round bye, we should see a recovered and steady offensive line. Even Jermon Bushrod, the top sixth-man in the Saints offense will return, which is good news for depth purposes and jumbo packages. They’ll have a tough task to keep Brees clean and make sure he has the time to pick a part of very weak Philadelphia secondary. Eagles pass rusher Michael Bennett is questionable for today’s game but was also reported as OUT by NFL Network. Not having him to deal with will allow the front to key in on Fletcher Cox, which is still no easy task. The added threat of Bennett tells a new story, but one the Saints have succeeded against before. They’ll need to repeat that success in order for the Saints offense to be able to fire on all cylinders.
3. Get to Nick Foles
The Saints finished the season with 49 sacks tied for fifth-most in the NFL. They’ll need to continue that production and get Foles on his back. Though Foles is the ebst QB in the NFL against the blitz, he struggles when pressured. Those are, of course, two different things. If the defensive line can get pressure on Foles like they did against Wentz in Week 11 when they accounted for two of the team’s three sacks and four of their seven total QB Hits. Under pressure last week, Foles threw for only 46.2% with a touchdown and interception. If the Saints can pour the pressure on without sacrificing a man in coverage, they’ll find success in the Philadelphia backfield. Remember, sacks aren’t the only way to win in the backfield for the pass rush. Get contact and disrupt Foles in the act, making him uncomfortable. This will be a challenge without the support for the next key, though.
4. Take Away the First Read
Because of how quickly Foles was able to get rid of the ball against the Bears (2.38 seconds) their pass rush was mostly erased. The key for the Saints in avoiding this will be in coverage. If the secondary can take away Foles’s first read, he’ll be forced to hold the ball longer as he goes through his progressions. This feeds pretty well into Dennis Allen’s hybrid defensive style which forces the QB to read not only their progressions, but the coverage after the snap as it shifts from zone to man throughout the course of a play. Nick Foles, while being the best QB in the league against the blitz has ranked 34th against zone. This bodes well for the Saints who heavily run zone coverage before making the transition to man as the play develops. If Foles struggles to read and diagnose the coverage, it should give Cam Jordan and the band time to get after the Quarterback. Read more about this in this excellent article by ASC contributor Dominik Kedzierawski as he discusses the chess match between Foles and key Saints secondary piece Marcus Williams. The Saints will also need to limit the yardage and momentum gained off of Doug Pederson’s trick plays, which have found them Super Bowl success in the past.
5. Play Like the Number 1 Seed
It’s been a little while since we’ve seen the Saints play unstoppable football. Perhaps not since Thanksgiving Day against the Falcons at home. You could say that the offense has continued to improve in weeks 14 and 16 against the Bucs and Steelers, but even that style of offense was much different than the electrifying unit we’d seen earlier in the season. New Orleans has the personnel and gameplan to not only outplay you, but entirely overwhelm you. If the Saints can get back to that dominating style of play along with the support of a raucous Superdome, they’ll be suffocating opponents at home for the next two weeks. To do so, they’ll need to score early and on consecutive drives, convert on third-downs, run the ball effectively, protect Brees so that he can play at his Hall of Fame level, and get the crowd into the game. This is the first of two possible home-field regular season rematches for New Orleans. If they win against their Week 11 opponents, they’ll host the Rams who they beat on Poydras Week 9, snapping their eight-game win streak. The way they played in those weeks can be replicated with the team back to full strength. If they recreate their offensive success from the early portion of the season and combine that with the team’s post-Week 8 defense, that’s what a #1 seed looks like. Manage that, and you might as well stamp their ticket to Atlanta now, if you haven’t already.
Follow Ross on Twitter @RossJacksonASC