It’s playoff football time in Philadelphia, and expectations are high that the Eagles can continue their miracle season with a win over the New Orleans Saints.
The Eagles have captured wins in seven of their last eight games after a 3-5 start to 2013. A game-sealing interception by Brandon Boykin in the final minute of the Dallas contest secured the NFC East division title for Philadelphia. Chip Kelly’s Birds set a franchise record for points scored and total yards gained, and they have a chance to knock off Drew Brees and the Saints on Saturday night.
The sheer weather conditions suggest a favorable matchup for Philadelphia. The Saints are 0-5 all time in road playoff games, with Brees accounting for three of those losses. This season, New Orleans was 8-0 at home but just 3-5 on the road, and it didn’t score more than 26 points in any away contest.
Philadelphia catches a break as Saints leading rusher Pierre Thomas has a chest injury, and will not suit up, per Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk. Thomas was also Brees’ leading target, catching 77 passes out of the backfield on an unbelievable 93 completion rate. That will put the pressure more on Darren Sproles to produce, and the Saints will need a strong game from a handful of other players to win, notably all-world tight end Jimmy Graham.
There aren’t too many men walking around on this earth with Graham’s physical stature.
He’s a 6’7” former basketball player with incredible leaping ability and was quick enough to get free to haul in 16 touchdowns this season. Over the last three years, Graham has averaged a 90/1,172/12 stat line. His 36 touchdowns are the most in the NFL since 2011, and his 270 catches are fourth-most.
Drew Brees targeted Graham 136 times this season, more than any other player on the New Orleans Saints (Marques Colston was second at 107). Graham is too difficult for one man to cover, and Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis will need to be creative in figuring out ways to stop Graham.
The weather suggests the Saints won’t throw the ball as much as they normally do, but that doesn’t mean Graham can’t still beat the Eagles. Graham has six 100-yard receiving games this year and 10 contests in which he hauled in five or more receptions.
He’s slowed down in recent weeks, putting up an average of just 53.8 yards in his last five games. Then again, he’s dealt with a foot injury, and he was facing elite defenses. And he still did total five receiving touchdowns in that span, which is a testament to his ability to get open in the red zone.
There’s no secret trick to shutting down Graham, and the Eagles don’t have an individual player that can take Graham out of the game. The only team to shut down Graham this year was the New England Patriots, with cornerback Aqib Talib blanketing Graham on all six targets his way.
Talib is a top cover corner, and the Eagles don’t have a player of his skill. Cary Williams is the No. 1 corner, but he’s probably going to match up with Marques Colston for the majority of the snaps. Brandon Boykin leads the team in interceptions (six), but he’s primarily a nickel cornerback who should stick with slot man Kenny Stills.
Inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks is the logical man to cover Graham, given that he’s been used on opposing tight ends more than any other Eagle this year. Kendricks has 4.47 speed, and he’s improved vastly in coverage during his two NFL seasons. Last week, Kendricks recorded a spectacular interception off Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten.
Then again, Kendricks was also beat in coverage many times—Witten finished with 12 catches for 135 yards, and Kendricks was charged with five receptions on Kyle Orton’s six throws to Witten. Kendricks is a full eight inches shorter than Graham, so he will have his hands full trying to cover Graham.
This year, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has charted Kendricks with having allowed an 82 percent completion rate on 67 throws his way. That’s the ninth-worst mark in the league among 55 qualifying inside linebackers. Kendricks also tied for the league-worst with 21 missed tackles, and the Eagles can’t afford Graham to get away from him at all on Saturday.
The ideal scenario is that Davis puts Kendricks on Graham but uses a safety over the top to help with the coverage. The problem, though, is that Graham is so athletic that he doesn’t line up primarily as a tight end on the line. He plays in the slot and even out wide.
The St. Louis Rams slowed Graham the most out of all the teams in recent weeks, holding the big tight end to just two catches for 25 yards in Week 15. Two of Brees’ throws to Graham were even intercepted.
Courtesy of NFL Game Rewind, here are a few images of where Graham lined up against the Rams.
On the Saints’ very first offensive play, a Brees throw to Graham was picked off. Graham began the play on the left side lined up as the tight end.
He then went in motion to the right side of the line.
From there, Graham was in the slot position as Brees received the snap from the center.
Brees’ pass was poorly thrown, resulting in an easy interception for Rams safety T.J. McDonald.
Don’t underestimate Graham’s athleticism, though, to essentially line up as a slot receiver and run a deep post to the middle of the field.
Later on in the game, the Saints employ Graham as a wide receiver—he’s lined up at the top of your screen opposite Rams’ No. 1 cornerback Janoris Jenkins.
Graham’s sheer versatility as both a wide receiver and tight end will cause matchup problems for the Eagles, and it’s enough that the team can’t simply put a linebacker like Kendricks on him all game. The numbers from Pro Football Focus show that the Rams employed a series of defensive players in coverage against Graham.
Outside linebacker Alec Ogletree was matched up on Graham for two throws. Corners Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson each had Graham for a pass each. Safety Rodney McLeod and T.J. McDonald also shadowed Graham for one passing attempt apiece. That’s five different players on Graham for a total of six throws from Brees, meaning it took a total team effort from the Rams to remove Graham from the ballgame.
The Eagles can hope to do that with a combination of Kendricks, slot corner Boykin, outside cornerbacks Williams and Bradley Fletcher, and the safeties.
When Graham records three or fewer receptions—as was the case in this game against the Rams—the Saints are 1-3 this year. When Graham catches four or more passes, the team is 9-3. The Saints are 5-1 when Graham has at least 100 yards receiving and 4-1 when he totals at least six receptions.
That shows you how important he is to the game plan for the Saints. The absence of Thomas, coupled with extremely frigid temperatures, could lead Brees to throw high percentage passes all game. That means Philadelphia will have to slow down Sproles and especially Graham if they want to advance to Carolina for the NFC divisional playoffs.