Before the divisional round of the playoffs, Andy Benoit is giving a blueprint for the four underdogs to win on the road. Here’s his plan for the Eagles against the Saints.
“We’re not the same team that New Orleans saw back in Week 11,” said every Eagles player and coach a thousand times this week. It’s true. In that Week 11 game, which New Orleans won 48-7, Eagles backup corners Rasul Douglas and Avonte Maddox were still getting their sea legs. Both have improved drastically, but that doesn’t mean Drew Brees won’t still attack—especially against Maddox, who struggled versus double moves last week at Chicago.
Double moves, of course, only work if the pass protection holds up. If Chicago’s did against Philly, we can assume New Orleans’s will. The Saints have more athletic tackles (Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk) and a more experienced interior (left guard Andrus Peat and particularly center Max Unger and right guard Larry Warford, who had superb seasons). And yet, it feels foolish to pick against an Eagles defensive line that’s rolling almost as much as it did in last year’s Super Bowl run.
Even if Philly’s D-line shows up, the linebackers and secondary still must survive in coverage. Every defense’s coverage approach begins with a plan for Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas, who often align together on the weak side. In Week 11, the Eagles played man coverage and dedicated doubles on both stars. Thomas finished with an acceptable 92 yards receiving while Kamara had just 37, but Brees killed other Eagles pass defenders who were left in true solo coverage. This time around, expect the Eagles to employ more of their traditional Cover 3 zones, with free safety Tre Sullivan playing shallow to take away in-breakers and make the meager-armed Brees throw over the top.
There’s one enormous difference between this year’s Nick Foles-led Eagles and last year’s: This year’s Eagles can’t run the ball. Philly’s rushing yards dropped from 132 per game last year to 98 this regular season. And last week at Chicago, the Eagles managed just 42 yards on 23 carries as their interior O-line simply could not handle stud defensive tackles Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman. Now the Eagles face a Saints run defense that ranked second overall.
And so it comes down to whether Foles can continue to make difficult late-in-the-down throws. Why does his production on these so greatly exceed what his physical tools suggest? Because he’s tough as hell in the pocket. That willingness to unleash the ball with defenders closing in is critical to Foles’s third down success, and having two plus-sized targets with big catch radiuses, like Zach Ertz and especially Alshon Jeffery, gives Foles a much-needed margin for error when it comes to precision accuracy. He must continue relying on those connections. The Saints, who are comfortable with Eli Apple at No. 2 corner, might guard Jeffery not just with top pass defender Marshon Lattimore, but also a safety, forcing Foles to rely more on Ertz inside and Golden Tate and Nelson Agholor on crossers. Chicago has a better defense than New Orleans, but if the Saints have an answer for Jeffery, this could be Foles’s greatest challenge yet.
Chance at an upset: 35%. The Saints match up well with Philly on both sides and let’s not forget the significance of the Superdome homefield advantage.
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