Today I will give you a little preview for when the Saints have the football on Sunday against the Eagles' defense. As I mentioned in yesterday's defensive preview, the Saints and Eagles stylistically are very similar football teams.
They are both very aggressive and high in volume with their schemes. They both attempt to fool the other team by throwing the kitchen sink at them. But they both love to attack and go for the jugular on a regular basis.
Eagles Defensive Personnel
The Eagles are about as talented as any team in the league defensively, especially in the front four and back four. Their linebackers though are very underrated.
On the defensive line, former Saint Darren Howard is still bringing it, and he does a really good job of occupying blockers to free up other players. On the other side, Pro Bowl Defensive End Trent Cole, who can get pressure on a quarterback all by himself, but is certainly aided by the Eagles heavy blitz scheme. Victor Abiamiri rotates in as well to provide good depth and pressure.
Mike Patterson and Broderick Bunkley start at the two defensive tackle positions. They are both a bit tough to figure out because each possesses an amazing amount of talent, but both are inconsistent. One play you see them shed a block and make a tackle in the backfield; the next they are getting pushed five yards off the ball.
Chris Gocong, Akeem Jordan, and Omar Gaither start as linebackers, while Joe Mays also sees a lot of time. They're a group that excels at filling gaps in the running game to make tackles. And they blitz very effectively. However, they are spotty at best in coverage.
In the secondary, Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown start on opposite corners, with Quentin Mikell and rookie Macho Harris starting at the safety spots. Sean Jones, Quintin Demps, and Ellis Hobbs will all rotate in nickel and dime packages. This group again is aggressive and has good athleticism and football smarts. To consistently beat them, and the rest of this defense it will take an excellent game plan executed perfectly.
What Philly Does Schematically
I've already mentioned this a few times, but I feel it necessary to repeat. The Eagles like to mix things up. They like to give you a multitude of different looks in order to deceive the quarterback, and offense in general.
The Eagles base defense is a 4-3, but the way they align both their lineman and linebackers varies from play to play. Sometimes the linemen will play the most basic form of a 4-3 where the ends play over each tackle; one DT plays over the guard (3-technique), and the other DT plays inside the other guard and the center (1-technique). If the D-Line is playing this standard alignment, you can pretty much bet the house, the linebackers are moving all over the place.
Other times, they'll put three linemen on one side of the offensive line and even throw a linebacker or two on that side, and completely overload that side. They then roll their coverage to the opposite side, in case the offense is smart enough to try to go away from it (which Carolina was not, haha).
In other forms of their 4-3 they will place the linebackers at different depths to make it look as if one is a safety, or again to try to fool the quarterback into thinking his post-snap assignment will be something different than it actually is.
Finally, the Eagles will play with a 3-down linemen look at times as well. They generally keep their three linebackers in the game and bring in an extra DB. They like to alternate their looks from this, and sometimes bring six, other times dropping all eight.
Additionally, the Eagles use the zone blitz, where they bring a backer or defensive back in place of a d-linemen, who then goes out to play the flat.
In the secondary, the Eagles like to mix things up as well. They play some Cover Two, Three, four, even six (in dime packages) where they basically create a triangle on each side to go three on two against a two by two alignment. When the Eagles choose to blitz these guys, they all do it effectively. Of course, they then roll coverage to the side they are blitzing from, keeping the integrity of their defense.
Because they blitz so much, the flats and short middle of the field are open on a majority of snaps. Beating them deep is difficult because their safeties do a pretty good job of keeping everything in front of them. However, it is possible, especially off playaction.
Saints Offensive Gameplan
First & Second Down
The Eagles will blitz at any time, but they get more exotic the more desperate the offense becomes. Because of this it is key to stay out of long yardage situations.
Therefore, look for the Saints to come out running the football on early downs. Look for some two tight end personnel to be used in order to match numbers. Being a power back, Mike Bell is the perfect running back to face this fast aggressive unit. He will wear on them as the game goes on.
The Saints need to run right at them. The inside zone, along with off tackle runs are really good. Also, the Eagles aggressiveness lends to some Reggie Bush cutback runs against the grain of the defense (see the Panthers lone touchdown run last Sunday).
In the passing game, look for a good amount of playaction, where the fullback, or tight end, releases into the flats and picks up five or six yards. I expect to see a lot of two back stuff, but also to see the 21 (Pony) personnel (Bush and Bell/Thomas) to create mismatches on the outside.
If the Saints can guess when they'll get a zone blitz, they can run Bush on a wheel route out of the backfield. They only have to have one receiver on that side, and that receiver should be running a deep vertical route into the middle of the field. A successful play like that should look something like Bush's 86-yard TD in the NFC Championship Game.
The Empty Gun Formation should be successful against the Eagles as it will force a linebacker to play one-on-one against a more talented receiver. Whether that's Shockey or Bush, it is absolutely a mismatch the Saints should win.
Two main things I look for in third-and-long situations from the Saints offense: draws and screens to take advantage of the Eagles blitz packages; and a Split Gun formation, where either Evans or Shockey join Brees and Bush in the backfield.
Because they are both effective receivers, they are perfect complements to Bush. Screens and misdirections become very possible. The two back alignment also helps protect Brees and give him time to scan the field.
Also, on third down, Reggie and Shockey should be able to patrol the middle of the field and rack up many catches and possibly first downs.
Another special play I would propose to Sean Payton is this:
Line up Shockey in the Ace position, behind the tackle about a yard, in a receiver stance, and place a receiver about five yards away and another on the ball another three yards out. You run a double combo route. It is a smash but also a cross post.
In other words that outside receiver, probably Lance Moore or Devery Henderson would run a post route; the number two receiver would run a five-yard hitch, and Shockey would cross the post but also go over the top of the hitch.
The safety on that side of the field will probably stay home for the post. If he evacuates, touchdown Mooore. If he stays, the smash route opens up, where Shockey is alone. This is most effective in the red zone, but could be used in the open field as well.
In short-yardage situations, the Saints will likely stick with the power running game described above, and use some playaction. A sprint-out may work since the Eagles have assigned gaps they are blitzing through.
You may also see 52 Wheel, the play that almost got Reggie killed in the playoff game a few years ago. In theory, that play works, especially on third-and-short.
I could also see a toss sweep and reverse being called, but both must be run away from the side of the blitz.
Lately I've heard broadcasters make a big deal about young QBs struggling in the red zone because space becomes so condensed. The Eagles are very good at condensing things in the red zone, in part because they're such a quick and athletic group.
Because of this, the running game has a chance to be successful, since they are not as strong or physical as they are quick. Again, the power running game should be successful. If Payton decides to go to a power personnel group (three tight ends, two backs) playaction becomes a good option—something the Saints have long been good at under Payton.
I don't see the fade, or any of the spread stuff the Saints do being a huge part of the goalline package this week. I think the power game is the way to go.
In fact, just in general, I think we'll see Reggie Bush, Mike Bell, Heath Evans, and Jeremy Shockey as the offensive stars for the week. Yes, the Saints will hit some vertical plays, but that will only follow some successful running and an effective short passing game.
I have a little more confidence in the offensive gameplan today than I did a day ago, when I thought we'd be lucky to score twenty points. Even now, though I don't expect a super high scoring game. But I do think the Saints have a chance.