On paper, the New Orleans Saints-Philadelphia Eagles Wild Card Game is a contest of mismatches. The Saints, in spite of their road woes, have matchup nightmare Jimmy Graham and a spread-the-wealth passing philosophy designed to expose the Eagles' thin secondary. Likewise, the Philly run game has been on fire the second half of the season and goes up against a battered Saints defense.
So how can each defense prevent the opposing offense from speeding up and down the field at will? Realistically, it will be extremely difficult for either to experience much sustained success. But the defense that executes a couple key concepts will stand a better chance at manufacturing a few key stops and helping its team advance.
With that in mind, here are a couple crucial keys if either defense hopes to slow down a seemingly inevitable slugfest.
Keys for the Saints Defense
Contain the Edge
In seemingly hopeless circumstances, the Dallas Cowboys actually did a solid job on LeSean McCoy and the Eagles' ground game last week. McCoy still finished with 131 yards, but much of that came on a few long runs.
Dallas contained the NFL's leading rusher within the flow of the game, and it did so by confining a Philadelphia offense obsessed with space. The Eagles will often keep their receivers split far outside the numbers, forcing the secondary to move closer to the sidelines. That widens the box for McCoy, who has extra space to bounce his runs outside.
But while the Cowboys did have occasional breakdowns, they generally did a solid job of forcing McCoy back inside. On this run, Dallas stifles the Philly back in the backfield after George Selvie (No. 99) does a great job of setting the edge, eventually dipping back in to make the tackle:
Akiem Hicks is capable of a similar role with the Saints, as Hicks has the highest run grade of any Saints defender, per Pro Football Focus. By narrowing the amount of space the Eagles run game has to work with, New Orleans can quite literally contain McCoy.
Pressure Nick Foles
If the Saints force the Eagles into passing downs, it is absolutely essential that they pressure Nick Foles. Foles is lead-footed and has shown a tendency to take some unnecessary sacks this season. More distressingly, Foles clearly started staring at the rush and anticipating pressure against Dallas last week.
This plays into New Orleans' hands, as edge-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette are probably the Saints' best defenders after Kenny Vaccaro's injury. Jordan and Galette are not the same away from the Superdome's fast track, as the two have combined for 7.5 road sacks and 17.0 home sacks. Nevertheless, if they cannot get home, Foles is deadly downfield when given time:
Nick Foles: Best comp pct (52%) and best TD-Int ratio (14-1) when passing 15+ yards downfield this season— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 2, 2014
This is almost non-negotiable, as subbing Roman Harper in for Vaccaro in the secondary is a massive downgrade. Thus, New Orleans' best pass defense will be ensuring that Foles does not have the opportunity to pass.
Keys for the Eagles Defense
Bracket Jimmy Graham
The Eagles don't really have a big physical shutdown corner who can shadow Jimmy Graham, so some have speculated that Philly might try chipping with a linebacker and then having slot corner Brandon Boykin do the rest.
The only problem is that Graham rarely lines up on the end of the line like a traditional tight end. The Saints will usually line him up out wide and often send Graham in motion. Thus, the Eagles might have better luck with Boykin and safety help over the top, like the Patriots do here:
This is especially crucial in the red zone, where Graham is lethal. There is nothing the Eagles could do about Graham outleaping the defenders on a jump ball, but they could at least minimize the window Drew Brees could throw into.
Concede the Run Game
This says about everything one needs to know about the Saints' running game:
LeSean McCoy rushed for 1,607 yards in 2013 season ... 134 more yards than the Saints did— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 31, 2013
Indeed, New Orleans will rely on Drew Brees' right arm to carry the offense. However, it might behoove the Eagles to play a lighter box, almost daring the Saints to run. Philadelphia will almost certainly be in sub packages the whole game (nickel or dime defense), but dropping an extra defensive back into the box only leaves it vulnerable to the big play through the air.
The Saints running backs are highly unlikely to gash Philly on a regular basis. New Orleans as a team only averages 3.8 yards per carry on the ground, including 3.7 from lead back Pierre Thomas. Every play where Drew Brees hands the ball off is a victory.
If the Eagles can manage on the early downs, that sets up third-down opportunities. Even if they are only medium to short distances, they provide a chance to get off the field with one play. Conceding the run is the endgame to forcing the Saints into more third downs and giving Brees fewer opportunities to beat an overmatched secondary.