The 5-4 New Orleans Saints have dropped two straight contests as they come into this Sunday's road clash against the 4-6 Philadelphia Eagles. New Orleans is still just a game out of first place in the NFC South, but face a must-win situation against a conference opponent.
The Saints have one of the league's better defenses. They rank 10th in total yardage (337.7 yards/game) and 7th in points allowed (19.8). New Orleans is the NFL’s top-ranked unit against the run and are among the league's better teams in red-zone percentage, third down conversions, and turnovers forced.
In all four of their losses this season, the Saints have been vulnerable to big plays in the passing game. It’s a disturbing trend caused by a combination of coverage breakdowns and pass rush failures in critical moments.
New Orleans faces a Philadelphia team ranked 16th in total offense, averaging 350 yards and 25.7 points per game. The Eagles have been dominant on the ground, ranking third in that category, but also possess a big-play passing attack.
The Saints ranked fifth against the pass in 2020. Can they get back to that kind of dominance in this crucial conference battle?
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE VS. EAGLES PASSING ATTACK
New Orleans has allowed an average of 265 yards/game through the air, ranking 26th in the league. In their four losses, opposing quarterbacks have averaged 316 yards passing with 7 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
The Saints have given up 63.4% completion percentage to opposing passers. They've intercepted 11 passes, among the most in the league, but none in the last two games. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen runs an aggressive scheme predicated on man coverage and heavy pressure.
A key to that strategy is shutdown CB Marshon Lattimore, who’s allowed just 55% completion percentage when targeted and has an interception along with 11 passes broken up. Lattimore typically locks onto the opponent's top wideouts and plays his best against elite competition.
Lattimore is complemented by rookie Paulson Adebo and veteran Bradley Roby at corner. Adebo has had moments of inconsistency expected from a rookie, but is a physical defender with excellent ball skills.
Roby, acquired in an early season trade with Houston, is a proven quality starter. He excels in both man and off-ball coverage. With versatile defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson on injured reserve, Roby shares slot duties with S/CB P.J. Williams.
Safeties Marcus Williams and Malcolm Jenkins form one of the league's better tandems at the position, even without Gardner-Johnson. Jenkins provides experience on the back end and is savvy enough to cover bigger tight ends in the slot.
Williams has elite range and terrific ball skills. He is quietly having a year worthy of All-Pro consideration. P.J. Williams leads the team with 3 interceptions, while Adebo and Marcus Williams have each picked off two passes.
The Saints have an athletic trio of linebackers that are excellent in coverage roles and devastating blitzers. Rookie second-round pick Pete Werner has outstanding awareness and range and looks like a long-term fixture in the defense. Veteran Kwon Alexander is one of the league's fastest linebackers and is a factor all over the field.
The key to the defense, and one of the league's most underrated players, is LB Demario Davis. An outstanding pass rusher (3 sacks, 7 QB hits), Davis is just as terrific in coverage with his ability to lock onto tight ends or track down backs in the open field.
The Saints have 20 sacks and 62 QB hits this season. Not bad numbers, but a bit off the pace of the 145 takedowns that they had over the previous three years. More concerning is the fact that they've gone long stretches of games without much disruption on the quarterback.
Finally showing the promise from being a first-round pick in 2018, DE Marcus Davenport has been the most consistent disruptive force up front. Davenport has 8 pressures and is tied for the team lead with four sacks despite playing in just five games. He commands multiple blockers, but has both the strength and athleticism to beat them and get to the quarterback.
Veteran DE Cam Jordan has had a quiet year by his standards. In spite of undeserved criticism, Jordan has 3 sacks and a team-high 17 pressures. Offseason acquisition DE Tanoh Kpassagnon has had an outstanding year with limited snaps, recording 11 pressures and tying Davenport with 4 sacks.
DT David Onyemata is another player having a quiet year since his return from a six-game suspension. Onyemata is the team’s best interior rusher with a combination of freakish strength and athletic ability.
Philadelphia Passing Game
The Eagles have the league's 27th ranked passing attack. Second-year QB Jalen Hurts is developing into a deadly run-pass threat for the team's explosive offense.
Hurts is completing 62.2% of his throws with 13 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. He’s had two 300-yard outings and is averaging 216 yards/game through the air, but has been even more dangerous with his legs.
Philadelphia's leading rusher with 547 yards, Hurts has elite mobility comparable to Baltimore's Lamar Jackson. His abilities outside the pocket opens up more opportunities for the team's big-play receiving corps.
Rookie WR DeVonta Smith, the tenth overall selection, leads the Eagles with 42 receptions for 603 yards and 4 touchdowns. Smith is a dangerous deep threat, but also a sharp route runner over the middle despite his slight build.
Last year's first-round choice, WR Jalen Reagor, has been much more productive in his second year. Reagor, like Smith, is a gamebreaker with great speed. He has 22 catches for 171 yards and two scores.
Underrated WR Quez Watkins continues to be more reliable than Reagor. Watkins has caught 26 passes for 408 yards. He has yet to reach the end zone, but has the trust of Hurts in key situations.
Another former first-round pick, TE Dallas Goedert, provides a big target with great athleticism over the middle. Goedert has 29 receptions for 429 yards and two scores. He left last week's win over Denver with a concussion, but should be available this Sunday.
All-purpose RB Miles Sanders has been out with injury, but rookie RB Kenneth Gainwell has stepped up to be a reliable pass catcher out of the backfield with 20 receptions for 173 yards. Backs Boston Scott and Jordan Howard are only used as occasional check-down options.
Hurts has been sacked only 16 times this season and does a great job of avoiding pressure. He’s also protected well by an offensive line that’s healthier than last year. RT Lane Johnson and C Jason Kelce are among the best at their positions, while rookie G Landon Dickerson shows great promise.
What to Watch
When these teams met in Philadelphia last December, the Eagles won 24-21 because the Saints had no answer for Jalen Hurts in his first start. New Orleans didn't record a sack and registered just three hits on the elusive Hurts, who ran for 118 yards and threw for another 167.
The Saints have had problems with mobile quarterbacks again this season. They’ll need to pressure Hurts with their down linemen while using Davis, Alexander, or Werner to track him down if he breaks containment.
When Allen does bring an interior blitz, the defensive ends must stay disciplined with their rushes to keep Hurts from busting outside. The Saints defensive backs need to lock down the Philadelphia receivers to force Hurts to hold the ball and make plays with his arm, if the pass rush stays disciplined.
Lattimore and the New Orleans secondary have shut down top receivers like Green Bay's Davante Adams, Carolina's Robby Anderson, Washington's Terry McLaurin, Mike Evans of the Buccaneers, Seattle's D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, and A.J. Brown of the Titans.
The Saints have also allowed no-name receivers like John Ross of the Giants, Tennessee's Marcus Johnson, and Atlanta's Olamide Zaccheaus have big days against them. New Orleans had trouble with rubs and crossing routes against the Titans last week.
Philadelphia runs a similar passing scheme with a deep receiver over the top. Look for the Saints to combat this by being physical with the smaller Eagles wideouts at the line to prevent a free release and mixing up their coverage drops in the middle of the field to confuse Hurts.