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Eagles Preview: Five on the Saints

The Saints have morphed from a great offensive team with Drew Brees to a playoff-hopeful one leaning on its defense

PHILADELPHIA - When you think about the New Orleans Saints, your mind probably wanders to the future Hall of Fame quarterback running the show for one of the game's best play-callers.

With Drew Brees in the NBC booth, however, Sean Payton is learning how the other half lives.

Brees' replacement - former No. 1 overall pick and Tampa washout, Jameis Winston - has already been lost to a torn ACL and the Saints have turned toward veteran journeyman Trevor Siemian.

Despite all of that, the Saints are not only in the thick of the playoff race at 5-4, they are a game out of the NFC South lead behind Tampa Bay and have already beaten the Bucs once.

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The formula, however, is different with Dennis Allen's defense now carrying the load for Payton's 26th-ranked offense.

The Saints have playmakers at all three levels and possess elite pass-rushers, thumping linebackers, and one of the most talented secondaries in the sport featuring old friend Malcolm Jenkins.

Overall, the NOLA defense is No. 10 in the NFL entering Sunday's game and is the No. 1 run defense. The group is also top 10 in points per game, third-down defense, fourth-down defense, and red-zone defense.

STRENGTH VS. STRENGTH

Over the past three games, the Eagles have had the top running game in the NFL - 632 yards and six touchdowns at 5.1 yards per clip - doing all that without their most talented running back, Miles Sanders, who could be in line to return Sunday after missing three games with an ankle injury.

The damage, largely done by quarterback Jalen Hurts as well as rediscovered runners Boston Scott and Jordan Howard, was unleashed against two poor run-defense teams in Detroit and the LA Chargers, and one that looked good on paper in Denver but was missing key components of prior success due to injury.

The Saints have the best run defense in the NFL, allowing just 72.9 yards per game about half of Philadelphia's overall average of 144.3.

Star defensive end Cam Jordan and defensive tackle Shy Tuttle are among the best players at their position in the league when it comes to run support and the back seven brings with it perhaps the most physical players at their respective positions: linebacker Demario Davis and Jenkins, the former Eagles Pro Bowl safety who continues to play at a high level.

Per ProFootballFocus.com, Jordan and Davis are No. 3 at their positions when it comes to run support, Tuttle is No. 7 at DT and Jenkins is the 16th best safety. Rookie LB Pete Werner is also No. 7 at the second level.

If the Eagles can run the football this week, they will have to earn it.

"We’re preparing like any other week," rookie left guard Landon Dickerson said. "We’re going to have a great plan, execute it at practice, and give it our all. I think the Saints have a really good team, they have a really good defense. We’ll do our best."

DEVONTA VS. THE SHUTDOWN CORNER

You could argue that there is no such thing as a shutdown cornerback in the modern NFL but the Saints' Marshon Lattimore is probably as close as you're gonna get. Earlier this season against the Washington Football Team, Lattimore broke up a mind-numbing six passes.

The Eagles still do not have a consistent complement to DeVonta Smith on the outside and that will likely enable Allen to allow Lattimore to travel with Smith, who is coming off his best game as a pro in Denver despite a nagging elbow injury.

Smith has nine receptions for 182 yards and three TDs over his past two games. The Eagles' other receivers have combined for just eight total catches for 48 yards over that same span.

ALVIN, ALVIN, ALVIN IS OUT

Alvin Kamara is arguably the most dynamic RB in the NFL, with game-breaking ability as a runner and a receiver.

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Since entering the NFL in 2017, Kamara ranks third in the NFL in total yards from scrimmage (6,900) behind only Ezekiel Elliott (7,178) and Derrick Henry (7,016).

Blessed with extraordinary quickness, a healthy Kamara is too much for any linebacker or safety in the passing game and he runs with a physicality that most backs with his kind of athleticism do not possess.

The good news for the Eagles' defense is that Kamara is dealing with a knee injury that will force him to miss his second consecutive game on Sunday. The star did return to practice in a limited fashion on Wednesday and the Saints were trying to get him back on the field. By Thursday, however, Kamara was a DNP again and he was ruled out Friday.

Veteran Mark Ingram will carry the load in Kamara's absence.

ROAD WARRIORS

In the Payton era, no NFC team has been better on the road than the Saints, who are 73-52 (.584) away from the Superdome since 2006, second in the entire NFL to New England. Those numbers have only gotten better in recent seasons with New Orleans compiling a gaudy 23-6 (.793) road mark since 2018.

Of course, most of that was done with Brees under center although the Saints are still above water this season away from home at 3-2.

"You gotta take a look at who’s under center. Obviously, Brees is a very experienced quarterback. Played a lot of ball," Eagles safety Anthony Harris said. "Recognized a lot of defenses, gets the offense in and out of calls and out of tough situations. So his experience alone adds another dynamic. Each quarterback is different."

The Saints recently lost Winston to a torn ACL and are going with Siemian while Payton also has Taysom Hill, who started against the Eagles last season, to offer some different looks.

Hill, though, wasn't able to practice Wednesday or Thursday with a foot injury and is questionable.

SHAKY RECEIVERS

With Michael Thomas out for the season, the Saints have really struggled at receiver with 5-foot-6 former undrafted free agent Deonte Harris providing the biggest threat. Harris doesn't get a ton of reps because of his size but he can get behind most defenders and has amassed a team-leading 407 receiving yards on just 24 receptions, an impressive 17.0 yards per catch.

From there, the volume has gone to the limited Marquez Callaway with Tre'Quan Smith coming on a bit since returning from injury.

PREDICTIONS

John McMullen (8-2, 6-4 vs. spread) - A win would be big for multiple reasons when it comes to the Eagles with Sirianni's first win at Lincoln Financial Field background noise.

The way things are shaking out in the NFC means just about everyone outside Detroit has a shot at the final playoff spot over the next two months and a win by Philadelphia would give them tiebreakers over Atlanta, Carolina, and the Saints.

Even bigger than Kamara's health is the absence of Armstead and Ramczyk (knee), perhaps the best OT duo in the NFL when clicking.

The Saints are simply too banged up and Jalen Hurts will make one more play than Simien in the fourth quarter.

EAGLES 24, SAINTS 20

Ed Kracz (5-5, 5-5 vs spread) - The Saints are a banged-up bunch, and that's one reason I like the Eagles. Another is, they haven't won at home all season, so it just feels like now is the time, especially since it's been something stressed this week among players and coaches.

EAGLES 21, SAINTS 17 

-John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John, alongside legendary sports-talk host Jody McDonald every morning from 8-10 on ‘Birds 365,” streaming live on both PhillyVoice.com and YouTube. John is also the host of his own show "Extending the Play" on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen

Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s Eagle Maven and co-host of the Eagles Unfiltered Podcast. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles or www.eaglemaven.com and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.