It took a while for them to make us feel more comfortable, but the New Orleans Saints are moving on to the NFC Championship, following a 20-14 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs. The Saints could not have had a worse start, turning the ball over on the first play of the game and quickly finding themselves down 14-0 to the defending Superbowl Champions. Thankfully, every player in black and gold re-evaluated what was going on and got it together, storming back with 20 unanswered points to secure the victory and move on to their third appearance in the NFCCG. All three have come under Sean Payton since 2006, with this being the first in 9 years. Payton and the Saints are 1-1 (1-0 at home) when presented with the opportunity to play for a trip to the Superbowl, having moved on to play in and win Super Bowl XLIV in 2009. Before moving forward, though, let’s take a look back and the best and worst on Sunday that played a part in New Orleans moving on.
It should come as no surprise that Mike Thomas is the first name on this list. Living up to his Twitter handle, once again, the Eagles truly couldn’t guard Mike. I thought he would be the game’s MVP, but even my prediction of 10 receptions for 150 yards and a touchdown was an under-shot. Thomas finished with 12 receptions for 171 yards and what ended up being the game-winning touchdown. He gave the Philadelphia secondary fits, specifically Avonte Maddox. All season, New Orleans has been lacking production from any other receiver, but when the 1st team All-Pro does this, it does not even matter.
It was been a mostly quiet sophomore season for reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, even struggling at times. One of those games in which he struggled came the last time the Saints played in a meaningful game, when they came from behind to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers at home. In that game, both Antonio Brown and Juju Smith-Schuster filled up the stat sheet, leaving fans and the media questioning if the black and gold’s secondary would be the Achilles heel of the NFC’s #1 seed in the playoffs. That unit, specifically Lattimore, put that notion to bed by balling out on Sunday and giving Philadelphia’s passing offense more than they could handle after the Eagles scored touchdowns on their first two drives. The #1 cornerback may have single-handily saved what could have been a disastorous Sunday for the Saints, picking off Nick Foles towards the end of the 1st quarter to change the momentum. That takeaway led to a New Orleans touchdown and it was domination for the Saints the rest of the way. Lattimore also sealed the game, intercepting another Foles pass in the 4th quarter after the ball tipped off of Alshon Jeffery’s hands. With the high-powered offense of the Los Angeles Rams coming to town for the NFC Championship Game, let’s hope that this performance was just a preview of what more is to come.
Continuing with his theme of incredible in-game/halftime adjustments, the Saints defensive coordinator had his guys in the best position possible to keep the Eagles from scoring again following those first two drives. There was a stretch in the second half of the season in which the New Orleans defense shut out their opponents in the second half for 4 of 5 games. They did even better than that on Sunday, keeping Philadelphia off of the scoreboard for the final three quarters of the game. Nick Foles’ success in the Eagles offense the past two seasons has been largely due to getting the ball out of his hand quickly. It can be tough to defend, because it all happens so quick and it completely negates your pass rush. On the first two offensive drives for Philadelphia, they were executing that to perfection. So, what changed for the rest of the game? Dennis Allen had his defenders start playing closer to the line of scrimmage and getting more physical with the receivers off of the snap. The quick release passing game relies on receivers getting fast, clean jumps off of the line of scrimmage, so jamming the offensive players off of the line completely throws off timing. That is exactly what the Saints did and as soon as Nick Foles had to hold on to the ball for longer than 3 seconds, everything changed. Allen’s defense was unable to get Foles on the ground for a single sack, but just the little extra time for the quarterback with the ball in his hand was enough for the pass rushers to get a tad closer and get him antsy. I still do not believe that the defensive coordinator has received enough credit for the incredible play of the defense this season. He finally has the players that fit his scheme and, boy, isn’t it paying off.
This ended up being one of Payton’s best coached games of the season. Factoring in the scope of the playoffs and the early deficit, each and every call was crucial. There were two calls that I can think of off the top of my head that I did not particularly care for, but aside from that, Payton was on his A-game. Starting from the beginning, I loved the play-call to take a deep shot on the first play of the game. Ted Ginn Jr had a few steps on Cre’von LeBlanc, but Drew Brees through a very bad ball. Yes, it was a turnover on the first play of the game that directly led to the Eagles seizing all of the momentum, but Brees makes that throw with ease in most situations. Later in the first half, the Saints were looking to take advantage of Marshon Lattimore’s first interception, while down 14-0. After getting stuffed on 2nd and 3rd down, Philadelphia looked to have forced a punt with New Orleans at their own 30 yard line. That did not matter to Payton, though, as he called a fake punt to convert and extend the drive. Just a few plays later Brees and the offense had the ball at the 2 yard line with a 4th and goal. Payton, again, made the aggressive decision to go for it and it payed off. On a beautifully designed play, in which Brees fakes a screen to Michael Thomas, Keith Kirkwood slipped behind coverage and hauled in the touchdown reception to get New Orleans on the board. Both decisions by Payton were made with the observation that the Eagles had everything going their way and the Saints were getting desperate. To have the courage to make those calls in impressive, but to call the right plays to execute shows how great of a coach Sean Payton is.
It was another game in which Hill was effective in multiple ways, but his impact was nearly even greater. He came through with the carry on the fake punt that led to a Saints touchdown, had a few runs that kept the Eagles off balance, but barely missed out on two huge plays. The first was as a receiver, where he had beaten Avonte Maddox on a deep route to the end-zone, but it was another under-thrown pass by Drew Brees. It most certainly should have been his first touchdown receptions. On the very next play, Hill appeared to have thrown a 46 yard touchdown to Alvin Kamara, but it was called back due to a holding penalty. It was probably the best thrown ball that we have seen Hill make as a Saints, a perfect strike to Kamara up the seam in stride.
Coverage on Zach Ertz
How the Saints defended Zach Ertz was a big question mark for me going in to this game. Not just necessarily *if* they could defend him, but *how* they would choose to do it. I felt confident that they were up to the task with guys like Demario Davis and Alex Anzalone who have played very well in coverage from their linebacker positions this season. Ertz had 116 receptions this year, which set the NFL record for most catches by a TE in a single season. That was also enough to finish second in the league behind only Michael Thomas. New Orleans held him to just 5 receptions for 50 yards on 8 targets. It was a masterful job by Dennis Allen’s defense, taking away the #1 option for the Eagles.
I reviewed the film and this is the breakdown of snaps in coverage by Saints defenders against Ertz, who ran routes on 30 plays:
PJ Williams – 8 snaps in coverage / 1 target / 0 receptions / 1 defensive pass interference (4 yards)
Vonn Bell – 7 snaps in coverage / 3 targets / 2 receptions / 27 yards
Alex Anzalone – 6 snaps in coverage / 1 target / 1 reception / 17 yards
Demario Davis – 4 snaps in coverage / 2 targets / 2 receptions / 6 yards
Eli Apple – 2 snaps in coverage / 0 targets
Marcus Williams – 2 snaps in coverage / 0 targets
AJ Klein – 2 snaps in coverage / 0 targets
David Onyemata – 1 snap in coverage / 0 targets
Overall, this was a phenomenal job by the defense against someone who has proved to be one of the biggest threats in the NFL.
The Saints offense only had one 2-minute opportunity, but it ended up being a big one that should not be overlooked. Starting at their own 6 yard line with only 1:18 left in the half and just one timeout remaining, chances of Brees and the offense getting points were slim. Do not tell them that, though, as the New Orleans offense went 67 yards in 7 plays and 1:12 to set up a 45 yard field goal for Wil Lutz, which he drilled. Those 3 points ended up being the difference in Philadelphia needing a touchdown at the end of the game instead of just a field goal to tie.
It was a rough game for the guard, who has had a fairly rough second half of the season down the stretch. He has played his normal starting left guard position, has had to kick out to left tackle with injuries to Terron Armstead and Jermon Bushrod, and has missed time himself with injuries. He was called for four penalties during the game, two false starts and two holding calls. One of his holding penalties came on the Saints 18 play, 92 yard touchdown drive in the 3rd quarter, so they were able to overcome the mistake by Peat. The other, came on that 2-minute drive that resulted in a field goal right before halftime. Thankfully, neither costed the Saints chances to put points on the scoreboard, but the first penalty on the field goal drive did cost the Saints a chance to get in to the endzone instead of settling for the field goal. It would have been tough to get a touchdown there, but with Brees and the Saints offense, you never know. We did find out after the game that Peat was playing with a broken hand that he had sustained in that Week 17 game against Carolina, but was able to wrap it up and play through it. Only he knows if that played a role in his rough performance, but regardless, he will have to play better with the stakes getting bigger and bigger as the Saints move on.
Williams only made one noticeable mistake as far as I noticed, but it was big one. On the 37 yard touchdown pass from Foles to Jordan Matthews on the Eagles first drive of the game, Williams was supposed to be the help over the top with PJ Williams in man coverage. It was a forgettable play for both of them, as PJ lost track of the play and stopped running, allowing Matthews to separate, while Marcus took a terrible angle and ended up on the wrong side of the receiver, making it an easy catch and touchdown. As a free safety with help over the top, Williams one job was to not let Matthews get behind him, which is exactly what happened. The second year player is another one of those guys that had a solid rookie season, but has been pretty quiet in 2018. I would love to see him start getting more involved in these last two (hopefully) games. I still believe the talent and capability is there, which leads me to believe that Williams will be just fine.
1st Quarter Offense
Missed throws, lack of focus, and getting dominated on the line of scrimmage is what we witnessed in the 1st quarter for the Saints offense. At one point early in the game, it looked to me like they had never been in a playoff game and were caught off guard. I am not exactly sure what the reason for that is, but they can not afford to come out the same way against the Los Angeles Rams. The Philadelphia Eagles are talented, but the Rams are a whole different beast. I do believe they will come out more prepared, especially not having been off for essentially three weeks, so hopefully we see the opposite and the Saints get back to taking early control in the NFCCG.
It started ugly, but at the end of the day, I could not be any happier with how things played out on Sunday. The defense played their butts off, the offense found their groove, and most importantly, the team found their swagger. They got back to having fun, which is when they are at their best. We have a big week ahead, leading up to what will be just the third appearance in the Conference Championship Game for the New Orleans Saints. That means another week of content and coverage, which I could not be any happier to help bring to you. For those who did not see it, I started something new on Sunday. I went live on Periscope from the @AllSaintsBlog Twitter account and did a live preview before kickoff, a halftime update, and an hour and half post-game summary. I talked about everything we expected and saw, while answering each and every question from you guys on the spot. I plan to do the same thing this week, possibly even doing a show at some point during the week. Be sure to follow the All Saints Considered Twitter account, as that will be the best place to find it. I will always retweet it from my account, as well. You can even select an option to give you a notification for when it goes live. Come hang out and ask me anything on your mind!
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