Scouting Eagles-Saints matchup
On Jan. 4, 2013, Chip Kelly was hours removed from a Fiesta Bowl victory. The Eagles brass prepared to fly to Arizona to meet with the Oregon coach.
One year later, Kelly has Philadelphia in a frenzy. In his first season on the job, Kelly led the Eagles to their first NFC East title since 2010. Saturday's home playoff date against the New Orleans Saints is a chance to give the Eagles their first postseason victory since a January 2009 run to the NFC championship game.
That march started with an opening-round victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Jan. 4.
Kelly said the Eagles have been in pressure situations this season since they were 3-5. They won seven of the next eight games. The Eagles are confident that they are peaking at the right time. Saturday will be another chance for evidence.
"It's what's the next challenge and what's the next opportunity," Kelly said, "and the great thing about where we are right now is if you win, you get to play again."
LeSean McCoy finished the regular season as the NFL's leading rusher (1,607 yards) and with the most attempts (314). He will need to pace the Eagles again on Saturday, but it won't be easy. The Saints have the NFL's 19th-ranked rushing defense and allow 111.6 yards per game. They allowed only one 100-yard rusher during the season's final eight games.
Their running defense is helped by a stout three-man front. The best run-stopper is 324-pound defensive end Akiem Hicks, who has made 35 solo tackles. The nose tackle is former Eagles first-round pick Brodrick Bunkley. The other defensive end is Cameron Jordan, the team's top defensive player and a challenge regardless of whether the Eagles run or pass. The leading tackler is middle linebacker Curtis Lofton. The Saints will miss injured do-everything safety Kenny Vaccaro.
The Saints have not seen the zone-read often this season. The Eagles have a versatile running game and can take advantage of the Saints in that way. It would help if the Eagles ran to their right. The Saints allow 6.2 yards per carry when teams run behind the right tackle and 6.6 yards per carry when they run around the right edge.
The cold weather might prompt the Eagles to pound the ball and try to wear down the Saints, especially in the second half. The Eagles went heavy on the run in the fourth quarter on Sunday because Chip Kelly noticed that the Cowboys defense was wearing down. The Saints defense has run 943 plays from scrimmage, which is the fewest in the NFL. The Eagles' pace could be an advantage.
Nick Foles completed 38 of 51 passes during the last two wins, and most of those incompletions were balls he threw away. He has four touchdown passes and zero interceptions in those games. Neither effort came against a pass defense as challenging as the one he will see Saturday.
The Saints enter the game with the No. 2-ranked passing defense in the NFL, a credit to the scheme that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan brought to New Orleans this season. They have allowed only 194.1 passing yards per game, and their 49 sacks rank fourth in the NFL. The Eagles allowed five sacks against Dallas. Left tackle Jason Peters and right tackle Lane Johnson must have strong performances to keep Foles upright and allow him to set his feet in the pocket. The pass-rushers to watch are Cameron Jordan (121/2 sacks) and Junior Galette (12 sacks). Ryan moves both of them around, so Peters and Johnson will draw both assignments. Jordan can rush through the interior, too.
The Eagles need to reignite DeSean Jackson, who has seven catches for 57 yards in the last two games. He topped that combined yardage output in 11 of the previous 14 games. Jackson's longest reception in the last two weeks was 20 yards. He's capable of big plays, and the Eagles need more from him in the postseason.
New Orleans' top cornerback is Keenan Lewis, who has not allowed more than four catches in a game this season. The Eagles can find a potential mismatch with the Saints safeties. Veteran Roman Harper replaced Kenny Vaccaro after Vaccaro suffered an ankle injury. One beneficiary could be tight end Zach Ertz, who cooled off during the last two games.
The Saints have the NFL's 25th-ranked rushing offense at 92 yards per game, although they seldom run. They have four rushers between 220 and 549 yards. New Orleans' best running play is often a screen pass. When the Saints do rush, it's best if they give it to Mark Ingram. The Heisman Trophy winner leads the team with 4.9 yards per carry, but he's had more than nine carries in a game just twice this season. The most frequent rusher is Pierre Thomas, who leads the team with 147 carries and 549 yards. Thomas did not practice the last two days because of a chest injury.
The Eagles have the No. 10 rushing defense in the NFL. That's not as important against the Saints. New Orleans still has the potential to gain yards on the ground, but it has had only one 100-yard rusher this season. Because of the Saints' passing game, look for the Eagles to focus their defense's attention on the passing game. Defensive linemen Cedric Thornton, Bennie Logan, and Clifton Geathers must prove valuable against the pass.
New Orleans has the NFL's No. 2 passing offense. The Eagles have the worst pass defense, but have ways to compensate.
Saints QB Drew Brees has passed for 5,162 yards with 39 TDs and 12 interceptions. However, Brees has topped 300 passing yards in just three of his eight road games. Nine of his interceptions have come on the road. The New Orleans offense is dangerous, but it's more difficult to execute when it's difficult to communicate and conditions are not ideal.
Brees' top target is tight end Jimmy Graham, one of the NFL's elite skill-position players. Graham lines up on the line, in the slot, and out wide. Often, he's simply a big wide receiver. A former college basketball player who is 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, Graham is often too fast for linebackers and too big for defensive backs. The Eagles will likely try both on him, with linebacker Mychal Kendricks expected to be busy in coverage.
Brees' weapons are not limited to Graham. Rookie receiver Kenny Stills led the NFL with 20 yards per catch, veteran Marques Colston finished the season with 943 yards, and running backs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas combined for 148 catches. Expect to see much of Eagles CB Brandon Boykin, who is second in the NFL with six picks despite playing only 51 percent of his team's snaps.
Brees makes quick decisions and has a quick release, and his 106.9 passer rating against the blitz shows that pressure does not often get to him. The Eagles must generate pressure with a four-man rush. Rookie left tackle Terron Armstead will make his third start Saturday. He was inconsistent in his first two, so Trent Cole could be a factor chasing down Brees.
The Saints are better at covering punts than covering kicks, and are not especially dangerous at returning either one. Darren Sproles is a skilled returner who has not broken a big return this season. The Eagles use Brandon Boykin and Brad Smith on kickoff returns and DeSean Jackson on punt returns.
The kicking game could be the difference. The Saints signed veteran Shayne Graham before Week 16 to try to fix their kicking game. Alex Henery has not missed a field goal since Nov. 10. Three of his four longest field goals have come during the last three weeks.
The home-field advantage is a major factor on Saturday. The Saints' five losses have all come on the road. They are also less conditioned to play in the cold weather than the Eagles, although the Eagles have played in only one game this season when the temperature was below 40 degrees. They practiced outdoors this week.
The Saints have the benefit of experience, with 35 players who have played in the postseason compared with the Eagles' 22 players.
ZACH BERMAN: EAGLES 34, SAINTS 31
JEFF MCLANE: SAINTS 30, EAGLES 28