There are two of Drew Brees. Both are great, but the home Brees is significantly better than the road one. The quarterback, in his 13 seasons with the Saints, has a 68-35 record (.660 winning percentage) and a 107.2 passer rating at the Superdome. On the road, he has a 57-45 mark (.559) and a 94.2 rating.
But this season alone, the disparity — in terms of his passing — has been the greatest of Brees’ career. He has a 133.3 rating at home vs. a 99.3 rating on the road. His numbers at the indoor track in New Orleans are galling: a 76.3 completion percentage, an average of 9.54 yards per pass attempt and a 22-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
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It’s difficult to win on the road in the playoffs, particularly against a rested No. 1 seed, but the Eagles have the daunting task of facing one of the best quarterbacks ever who may be the best ever on his home field.
“Every place is going to be difficult to play,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said, “but [it] also has a lot to do with the quarterbacks that you play and we have a lot of respect for him and we’re going to have to play our very best."
In November, the Eagles didn’t play their best, or anywhere near it, and lost, 48-7. It was a complete team failure. But Schwartz’s unit was overmatched both on the ground and through the air. Brees was nearly perfect, completing 22 of 30 passes for 363 yards and four touchdowns.
It was the low point of the Eagles’ season. But the team that faced the Saints nearly two months ago is no longer. The Eagles have won six of their last seven, and the defense has found a formula to offset some of the losses in the secondary.
“It feels like the game is almost a year ago,” Saints coach Sean Payton said Wednesday.
Still, both teams will look to the first meeting to glean information on what and what not to do the second time around. There’s hardly ever been one way to beat Brees. Like any quarterback, he struggles when pressured. But how can the Eagles get to one of the hardest quarterbacks to rattle?
“I don’t know that this is a game that you can just stick with one thing and stay with it over the course of the game,” Schwartz said. “He’s seen just about everything known to mankind.”
The objectives are obvious: Stop the run. Tackle well. Force the Saints into third and longs. Get four-man pressure. Mix up your coverages and blitz sparingly. And sometimes just accept that Brees and his bevy of weapons will have success.
The Cowboys accomplished most of the above goals in their 13-10 win over the Saints in late November. The Eagles may not match Dallas’ defensive personnel, top to bottom, but they have similar traits and may look to the Cowboys' game plan as a guide. Brees had his worst game of the season. He averaged only 4.5 yards per pass attempt and was intercepted once.
Here’s a closer look at the film from the first Eagles-Saints game and from the Dallas win, and how the Eagles can contain Brees and Payton’s explosive offense:
It sounds simple, stopping the run, but Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram make it anything but easy. In November, the Saints running backs combined to rush for 174 yards on 29 carries. Payton attacked the Eagles at the edges.
Payton had said leading into the game that he would target cornerback Sidney Jones (No. 22), per an NBCSports.com story, and that’s exactly what he did on the opening play. Ingram (No. 22) ran into his lane and Jones couldn’t make the tackle.
The barrage on the ground had just begun. Over a five-week span, from Games 9-13, the Eagles allowed 143.2 rushing yards a game and 5.4 yards per carry. But since then, in their last four games, they have allowed only 42.5 yards a game and 2.5 yards a rush.
The personnel had changed some. Jones, for instance, hasn’t played much over the last month. But the Eagles’ defense has simply done a better job with run-gap responsibility and rallying to the football.
Eagles defensive end Chris Long: At the end of the day, the No. 1 thing is stopping the run. If we don’t get them in third and long, it’s going to be a long day. They ran the ball well, especially on the perimeter.
The Eagles missed 11 tackles, per Pro Football Focus, in the first meeting. It wasn’t their worst tackling performance of the season, but it was close. There were a host of reasons, and credit should be given to the Saints, but positioning was at least partly the cause.
On this early third down, Nigel Bradham (No. 53) dropped too deep beyond the sticks, got rubbed out some, and when Brees (No. 9) dumped to receiver Chris Kirkwood (No. 18), the linebacker was late.
Schwartz said then that he was fine with Bradham’s positioning because the Eagles were protecting against a deeper pattern. But if you’re going to play soft, you have to tackle well.
Schwartz: There are some things that you can’t defend every single pass. If you do, you’re going to give up too many plays down the field.
Missed tackles are inevitable. When the Eagles went through an early spate of sloppiness, Schwartz said the biggest difference between this year’s defense and last year’s was that there was often another wave of defenders to clean up after a missed tackle.
Of the Saints’ 373 passing yards, 117 came after the catch. Jones got beat by receiver Michael Thomas (No. 13) on this hitch route, but half of the yards came after the catch.
Eagles cornerback Rasul Douglas: You can’t have no yards after catch. As soon as he throws it, you got to get them on the ground.
The Cowboys were willing to give Brees the underneath pass because they had defenders swarming to the ball.
The Eagles don’t have linebackers as athletic as Jaylon Smith (No. 54) or Leighton Vander Esch, which is one reason why they may go with more of their nickel and dime packages (more on that later) at the expense of size.
Schwartz would prefer to generate a rush with just his front four. But the defensive linemen often need Brees to look off at least his first read if they are to hurry, hit or sack the quarterback. In the first meeting, Brees had the ball out in 2.41 seconds, which was right around his season average of 2.43 seconds.
Like most quarterbacks, he struggles the longer he must hold the ball. Brees was 15 of 16 and tossed four touchdowns when the ball was out in under 2.5 seconds. But he was only 7 of 14 when he needed more than 2.5 seconds.
The Eagles didn’t sack Brees (No. 9) and hit him only once – here when Long (No. 56) forced an incomplete pass.
The Eagles’ front didn’t perform well in New Orleans, but the back end hardly ever forced Brees off his first reads, and even when the Saints would keep seven in to protect vs. four rushers, he found open receivers.
Long: We know he’s going to get the ball out. We know they’re going to seven-man protect some. It’s not a game where you’re going in and you’re like, ‘We’re going to get five, six, sacks.’
The Cowboys sacked Brees twice and hit him only five times, but it was enough against one of the more difficult quarterbacks to pressure. If Brees holds the ball longer than three seconds – it was 3.5 seconds here – the 4-man rush has to get home, especially against five- or six-man protections.
Long: It’s really about trying to disrupt him and force him to make a couple of errant throws.
If the Eagles can ahead early, they’ll force Brees to throw more and the Saints to send more players into routes. Trailing late in the Cowboys game, the Saints had five-vs.-four protection. The Eagles will need to win one-on-ones, as Dallas did here, if they are to get to Brees.
Eagles defensive end Michael Bennett: You just got to keep rushing him. Drew’s a hard quarterback to sack, but he’s been sacked before.
Schwartz blitzed Brees on 10 of 30 drops, per PFF.
Schwartz: I don’t know who comes up with those stats. I don’t know that that would be 100 percent accurate. We’ve had some other games I think that our blitz percentage has been higher.
Still, he blitzed more than normal. Brees has historically been one of the better quarterbacks vs. the blitz. He completed 8 of 10 passes for 146 yards and a touchdown when the Eagles sent more than four rushers. Of course, he was just as good (14 of 20 for 217 yards and three touchdowns) when they didn’t.
A delayed blitz, like the one here, is unlikely to produce the desired results. Asking cornerback Avonte Maddox (No. 29) to hold up that long in man coverage was probably too much to ask.
Schwartz: You have to pick and choose your times to be aggressive.
Brees’ passer rating is better vs. the blitz (120.0) than not (114.1), but the design of the blitzes must have a purpose. Safety Malcolm Jenkins (No. 27) came off the edge on the frontside here and Brees threw a back shoulder pass to receiver Tre’Quan Smith (No. 10).
The Cowboys blitzed Brees on only 2 of 30 drops. One resulted in an incomplete pass and the other in a sack when safety Anthony Brown rushed from his blindside.
Schwartz threw the kitchen sink at Brees and even tossed in some three-man rush. It actually worked a few times, like here on third and short when Brees dumped and Jenkins was there to clean up.
Schwartz: They are hard to find, but there are some good plays that our guys can gain a lot of confidence in that and say, “Hey, we can get this done.”
Schwartz doubled both Thomas and Kamara in the passing game, and took his chances against the Saints’ other receivers. But Brees is so accurate that it sometimes hardly matters who he’s throwing to.
When Payton figured out that free safety Corey Graham was shadowing Thomas, he took advantage, particularly, on this play when Graham was the “robber” on a Thomas crossing route. Tight end Dan Arnold ran a vertical route down the seam vs. Bradham and gained 23 yards.
The Eagles had a perfect storm of injuries before and during the Saints game. Cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby and safety Rodney McLeod were already done for the season. And then each of their replacements had to leave early.
Jenkins: It was kind of hectic. … You had Sidney Jones go down in game. Rasul might have gone down in the game. Avonte went down.
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The Eagles were down to Chandon Sullivan, De’Vante Bausby and Cre’Von LeBlanc at the three cornerback spots. Only LeBlanc, at slot, is still on the roster. Thomas vs. Sullivan (No. 39) was a mismatch.
But Jones and Douglas (allowed six passes for 107 yards and a touchdown on seven targets) struggled before their injuries. Douglas has seemingly improved with each week. Maddox, who is back and now at outside cornerback, had issues last week against the Bears. But the unit, overall, has been more sound.
Payton: I just think the continuity and the reps that they’re getting in each of these weeks now together as a group you can see it on tape.
Schwartz has increasingly utilized his dime package (six defensive backs) and used it often against the Bears. He went for speed over size likely to deal with multi-faceted running back Tarik Cohen.
Jenkins: It gives us the flexibility to match up anything … to match up against teams that are exceptional, or that can line up at different positions, so you’re not in these bad matchups.
Kamara is a notch above Cohen. The Eagles neutralized him in the passing game. He didn’t see a target until the fourth quarter when he was split wide vs. Jenkins.
The Cowboys stayed mostly in nickel against the Saints, but they could afford to with Vander Esch and Smith. Kamara was targeted 11 times in that game, but he caught only eight passes for 36 yards (4.5 average).
Dallas stifled the Saints on the ground (3.4 yards per rush) and forced them into third and longs, which allowed them to play in deeper zones.
Other than Dallas, it seems the only other thing to slow Brees this season is when Payton has used his Taysom Hill Wildcat package. The Saints have had some success on the ground with Hill receiving the snap, but when he’s thrown, the results – he’s 3 of 7 with an interception – have been dubious.
The Saints were cruising against the Eagles when he had Hill drop to throw on first down. With Brees split wide, Hill missed an open receiver and two plays later, New Orleans punted. It was the only three and out the Eagles had on the Saints’ first nine possessions.
The Saints scored touchdowns on six of seven drives during one stretch. Brees was dialed in and there was little the Eagles could do but tip their caps to the 39-year-old future Hall of Famer. This 15-yard touchdown pass to Smith was a perfect example. LeBlanc had tight coverage. Graham was over top. But Brees just threw the ball in a perfect spot and his receiver made a tough catch.
The Eagles will come up with some sort of game plan to slow the quarterback. But execution will, ultimately, be more important than scheme.
Jenkins: You’re not going to surprise Drew Brees. He’s seen too much.