The Philadelphia Eagles are running out of time. After a disappointing home effort after the bye against Atlanta, the Eagles are once again fighting for their lives against an NFC South team, with a matchup against the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football.
The question isn't whether or not they can beat the Saints, who are extremely vulnerable on defense and also on the brink right now. Instead, it's whether or not the Eagles have any fight left in them.
With Michael Vick's starting job hanging by a thread, will the much-maligned veteran quarterback rise up and dominate a terrible defense or fall back into the same bad habits that have plagued him for the majority of the last two seasons?
In front of a national audience in prime time, this might be the most important game this team has played since its 2011 makeover.
With that in mind, I've got a suggested plan of attack.
On offense, air it out
The Eagles went super-conservative last week against the Falcons, which was an apt strategy when you consider the shape their offensive line is in, how much Vick has been struggling on deep balls and how much pressure Vick's been facing.
But there's a major difference between Atlanta and New Orleans on defense. And considering they're almost definitely going to have their hands full with the always dangerous Saints offense, the Eagles might have to win a track meet Monday night.
The Saints have the league's least effective pass rush and are the league's worst team in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus. As a result, they've surrendered an NFL-high 9.1 yards per pass attempt. They've also surrendered 32 pass plays of 20 yards or more, which is tied for the third-most in football.
I'm not suggesting the Eagles should go deep play after play. They still have to maintain balance as best they can against a run defense that has also struggled. But they have to take more shots down field than they did last week.
Could this result in more turnovers? Sure, but the Eagles have to prove that they can win shootouts if they're going to compete down the stretch. There's a difference between playing smart and playing scared.
Plus, the New Orleans defense has only nine takeaways in seven games this season.
The only guy in the Saints' secondary who can cover NFL-caliber receivers is Jabari Greer, who's the only corner on the team with a positive PFF coverage rating this season. Patrick Robinson and nickel man Corey White have been abused weekly and rank 99th and 100th, respectively, out of 104 qualifying corners this season, per PFF.
With that in mind, the Eagles should move DeSean Jackson into the slot often, forcing White and a safety to deal with him and ensuring that they'll have single coverage elsewhere with either Jeremy Maclin or Jason Avant when in three-receiver sets. Either that or the Saints can leave White on Jackson solo and get burned. The point is that they don't have the personnel to cover Philly's receiving corps.
The Eagles can make a statement on offense in this game. They need the jolt. Time to get aggressive.
On defense, stick with the wide-nine and attack
The Saints create big plays on offense as often as they give them up on defense. They've only averaged 7.3 yards per attempt this year because Drew Brees hasn't been as accurate as in years past. But they've still managed to compile 30 passing plays of 20-plus yards, which ranks second in the NFL.
In fact, Brees is actually averaging 12.3 yards per completion, which would be the second-highest full-season total of his career.
In other words, this has been an all-or-nothing offensive attack this season. More all than nothing, but still all or nothing.
The Eagles surely looked at what the Chiefs and Broncos did against the Saints, because both of those AFC West teams found a way to hold Brees and the passing attack in check. If the Eagles can do that, they'll be forcing a running game that's only averaging 3.7 yards per carry to save the day, which is obviously ideal.
Brees' completion percentage against those two teams was only 54 percent. In both cases, the Chiefs and Broncos invited the Saints to run against blitzes and seven-man boxes. Stubbornly, New Orleans kept attempting to move it through the air, and Brees was roughed up.
Under pressure this season, Brees' accuracy percentage of 55.7 ranks 27th among 32 qualifying quarterbacks, per Pro Football Focus. That's amazing, because one year ago, he was the league's most accurate passer in those situations.
So, while the wide-nine exposes Philly's defense on runs and screens, this is not the week to change things up. The Eagles have to continue to attack with Jim Washburn's staple scheme while also working in more blitzes than usual. If the Saints pick up some consistent gains on the ground and with short passes into the flats, the Eagles will be losing battles while winning the war.
The key will be to dial up as much heat as possible while relying on talented cornerbacks to take care of a diverse receiving corps. That's exactly what the Broncos did, and the Eagles have the personnel to get it done.