When we talk about the challenges that the New Orleans Saints pose to the Philadelphia Eagles, the person who instantly comes to mind is Drew Brees, then Jimmy Graham and a slew of other offensive weapons. Finally, there’s Sean Payton, the architect behind it all.
But there is at least one more name to consider for Saturday’s first-round playoff matchup: defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
It’s not all about offense in New Orleans anymore. In less than a year’s time, Ryan transformed the Saints’ 32nd-ranked defense into a top-five unit—and yet another of Nick Foles’ toughest tests to date.
Oh, it’s probably nothing the 24-year-old can’t handle. Foles was only the league leader in passer rating this season, not to mention set an NFL record with a 27-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
I sincerely hope you’re not still waiting for this kid’s bubble to burst.
|New Orleans vs. Quarterbacks Last 4 Weeks|
|Cam Newton (CAR)||22/34||160||1||0|
|Kellen Clemens (STL)||14/20||158||2||0|
|Cam Newton (CAR)||13/22||181||1||1|
|Mike Glennon (TB)||22/41||219||2||1|
|Pro Football Reference|
Foles will have to get the ball out of his hand quickly, though, in order to defeat the NFL's No. 2 pass defense. New Orleans limited eight—or half—of this year’s opponents to no more than 161 yards through the air, a feat that begins and ends with the work getting done in the trenches.
Ryan’s 3-4 has made stars out of defensive end Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette, who finished fifth and sixth in sacks, respectively. Their 24.5 accounted for exactly half of the Saints’ 49 this season, the fourth-highest total in the NFL.
The Eagles do claim one of the best offensive lines in the league, so it’s not as if Foles should be under duress on every snap. That being said, when he does on occasion look like a second-year quarterback, it often manifests itself as indecisiveness.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), only Seattle’s Russell Wilson took longer than Foles on average from snap to pass/run and the Philly signal-caller did lose two fumbles on strip sacks in 2013.
It should make for a good game of cat and mouse—and Foles usually emerges with the cheese.
Break Glass in Case of Football
By now, I don’t have to tell you that LeSean McCoy figures into this thing somehow. You knew Shady was the NFL rushing champion, but did you know he led the league in carries and touches as well?
First-year Eagles head coach Chip Kelly feeds him the football.
Probably because the more No. 25 touches the football, the more Philadelphia wins. The Birds’ record is 9-1 this season when McCoy touches the ball 24 or more times in the same game and 1-5 the rest of the time.
|LeSean McCoy Splits by Quarter 2013|
The Saints are certainly vulnerable to the ground attack. New Orleans touts the 19th-rated run defense, but truthfully, the unit would probably be worse if Drew Brees didn’t occasionally build such big leads that opponents gave up on it. Only three teams allowed a higher yards-per-carry average.
The key is keeping the score close enough that the Eagles can stick with the run. McCoy’s average gradually increases as the game progresses, climbing from a solid 4.4 YPC in the first quarter to a staggering 6.0 in the fourth.
Naturally, the Eagles won’t be able to run as much if they go down by two possessions in the second half.
New Orleans’ Offense vs. Philadelphia’s Defense
How anybody ever stops Jimmy Graham is a mystery to me, especially with Brees throwing him the football.
6’7”, 260 pounds, 4.56 40, a 38.5" vertical—Graham can run by or over defenders with his quickness and strength, while using his size and athletic ability to catch passes in places puny mortals could never reach.
The former University of Miami basketball player had by far the best season of any tight end in the league in 2013, registering 86 receptions and 1,215 yards. He also led the entire NFL with 16 touchdown catches. Drew Brees has never had it better.
Graham certainly presents a conundrum for Philadelphia, which doesn't have one player on defense who could “shadow” the two-time Pro Bowler. When speaking with Rich Hoffman of the Philadelphia Daily News, Chip Kelly lamented the obvious matchup problem as well.
Just look at how they use Jimmy Graham and line him up all over the place. I think that's the one thing about Jimmy that makes him such a special player is he's probably too athletic for linebackers to cover, but he's too big for defensive backs to cover, and he's never going to be in the same spot. He doesn't line up as a traditional tight end attached to the tackle. He could be the lone receiver. He could be in the back in the backfield.
They move him all around and get him to favorable matchups and that's the dilemma when you face that offense.
The Eagles often match up Mychal Kendricks against tight ends. Kendricks has the speed to keep up with Graham, but generously listed at 6’0”, the linebacker gives up nearly a foot to the monster. He’ll help out, though.
I wouldn’t be afraid to put Brandon Boykin on Graham situationally either. At 5’10”, Boykin concedes a massive height advantage as well, but he is the defense’s best player in coverage, he’s fast and he can jump out of the gym. He’s not going to win every battle with the physically superior Graham, but nobody is—he’s a once-in-a-generation talent.
Boykin finished the year tied for second in the league with six interceptions, and as the nickel cornerback, he only lines up for roughly half of the defensive snaps. Don’t sell him short.
It’s not like the Eagles can just double- and triple-team Graham on every route. The Saints are loaded. Rookie wide receiver Kenny Stills posted a league-leading 20 yards per catch, while veterans Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Robert Meachem are all alive and kicking.
Sean Payton is also the only NFL head coach that would even think to have two running backs with over 70 receptions in Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles.
|Jimmy Graham's Win-Loss Splits 2013|
|Win (11 GMS)||6.1||87.2||14.3||12|
|Loss (5 GMS)||3.8||51.2||13.5||4|
|Pro Football Reference|
The numbers indicate that containing Graham is essential to slowing down the Saints offense, but is he really the key? Save that wooden stake for the field general that’s spreading the ball to his minions.
There’s no real proven method to stopping Drew Brees, besides pressure of course. However, Brees is so adept at knowing exactly where to go with the football and getting it out of his hand—and he has so many targets to choose from—that rushing the quarterback is easier said than done.
The problem for the Saints is there have been two different Drew Brees this year: Brees at home and Brees away. One is pretty good, the other is surgical.
The Saints were 8-0 in New Orleans this season, 3-5 everywhere else, and the difference in Brees’ play was stark—a 40-plus-point dip in passer rating. That’s on the extreme end compared to the rest of his career, but a notable drop-off in the numbers is not atypical.
|Drew Brees' Home-Away Splits 2013|
|Pro Football Reference|
Not that the road been very kind to the future Hall of Famer during the postseason. Jeff McLane for the Philadelphia Inquirer remarks that Brees’ record is 0-4 in playoff games at outdoor venues.
It’s often thought of as an intangible, but we can measure the importance of home-field advantage. 2013 playoff teams were 75-20-1 in their own buildings this season. Bleeding Green Nation’s Brandon Lee Gowton remarks that dome-dwelling teams such as the Saints are 3-22 when playing in temperatures below 35 degrees during the playoffs.
After going a full calendar year without earning a victory at Lincoln Financial Field, the Eagles are currently in the midst of a four-game home winning streak.
They’re going to need all the help they can get from South Philly’s 12th man when Brees and the Saints’ high-powered offense take the field on Saturday night.