The New Orleans Saints host the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles this Sunday. New Orleans rolls into this contest on an eight game winning streak and with the lead in the NFC South. The 4-5 Eagles come in having lost four of their last six games, third place in the NFC East and in danger of falling out of the conference playoff race. The Saints struggled defensively over the season's first month, but have solidified in some areas in the last few games. New Orleans has the league's 23rd ranked defense in both points allowed (25.8/game) and total yards allowed (376/game), but are beginning to show big play potential. Philadelphia, who were close to the top of the league's rankings in nearly every offensive category a year ago, currently rank 13th in total yardage (373/game) but are averaging just 22 points per game. The Eagles have had a number of injuries on both sides of the ball, and now likely face a must-win situation to keep their postseason hopes alive. Today, we have a look at how the Saints defense matches up against the offense of a desperate Philadelphia team.
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE vs. EAGLES PASS OFFENSE
The Saints rank 31st in pass defense, allowing 296 yards per game through the air. New Orleans has allowed four quarterbacks to throw for over 350 yards against them, and seven receivers have broken the 100 yard mark. Despite struggles in the secondary, the Saints have been able to do a better job at eliminating big plays against them in recent weeks, and have been able to create a few big plays of their own. The Saints defense only intercepted two passes in the first five games of the season, but have picked off opposing quarterbacks four times in the last three weeks. Eli Apple, who joined the team just prior to the trading deadline, has teamed with Marshon Lattimore to give coordinator Dennis Allen's unit a solid tandem of man to man corners. P.J. Williams is playing better than he did early in the season, and has given the defense some solid snaps as the third cornerback. Free safety Marcus Williams leads the team with two interceptions, and is playing equal to the level that earned him a spot on the NFL All-Rookie team last year, while fellow safety Vonn Bell has provided solid coverage and is second on the team in tackles. The Saints have contained opposing tight ends and running backs effectively in the passing game, a glaring weakness in the past. One reason for this is because of the play of their linebackers, arguably the most improved area on the team. Demario Davis, Alex Anzalone, and A.J. Klein have combined to make up an aggressive and athletic unit able to match up man to man, drop in coverage effectively, or become productive blitzers. Most of the Saints quarterback pressures have been generated by their defensive line though, who have 18 of the team's 21 sacks. Despite the continued absence of rookie first round pick Marcus Davenport (4 sacks), who should return in a couple of weeks from a toe injury, the Saints line has been a disruptive and playmaking unit. Defensive end Cameron Jordan leads the defense with six sacks, and is joined by tackle Sheldon Rankins (5 sacks) to give New Orleans a devastating inside-outside pass rush. Alex Okafor has replaced Davenport at defensive end, bringing down the quarterback 1.5 times, and the defense has gotten good pressure from the entire front seven in nearly every contest.
Philadelphia's passing attack has averaged 270 yards per game, ranking 10th in the league. The Eagles passing attack became much more productive once starter Carson Wentz, the second overall pick in the 2016 draft, returned to the lineup in week three. Wentz, who had been out since week 15 last season with a knee injury, is averaging almost 307 yards per game and has thrown for over 300 yards four times in the seven games since returning. Wentz is deep in talented receiving options to deliver the ball to, but his most effective is tight end Zach Ertz. The sixth year Ertz is second in the league with 75 receptions, leads all NFL tight ends with 789 receiving yards, and leads his team with five touchdowns. Fourth year wideout Nelson Agholor has caught 46 passes for 455 yards and a score, and is one of the more underrated receivers in the conference. Veteran receiver Alshon Jeffery missed the first three games, but has 33 receptions for 389 yards and 4 touchdowns in the last six games. Jordan Matthews is back for his second stint with the Eagles, and has provided productive depth with 13 catches for 240 yards. Philadelphia traded for receiver Golden Tate at the deadline to give their quarterback another productive threat. Tate, an eight year veteran, had over 1,000 yards receiving in three out of his four years in Detroit. The team's second round pick this spring, tight end Dallas Goedert, has integrated himself well into Philly's offense, and has 18 catches for 188 yards and 3 scores. With running back Darren Sproles sidelined for all but one game this season, the Eagles don't use their backs heavily in the passing game, but Wendell Smallwood does have 18 catches for 173 yards and two scores, and can be dangerous in the open field. Philadelphia has struggled to protect their young quarterback, allowing Wentz to be sacked 23 times and giving up 28 sacks on the year. Even when Wentz does get the ball off, it is often under a heavy rush, even with his good mobility.
~ Matchup to Watch: Saints secondary vs. Eagles pass catchers ~
Ertz and Goedert are perhaps the most athletic tight end duo in the league, and are a major part of Wentz's passing attack. The Saints linebackers may have a hard time containing these dynamic threats, so coordinator Dennis Allen may use his safeties more in man coverage, perhaps even corners when Ertz or Goedert move into the slot. Jeffery and Agholor are both extremely talented, but sometimes have struggled to get open against physical coverage. Tate is a shifty talent who has been a Saints-killer throughout his career. In four games against New Orleans while with the Lion, Tate averaged nearly 8 receptions for 110 yards per meeting and scored 5 touchdowns, and had over 90 yards receiving in three of those four contests.
SAINTS RUN DEFENSE vs. EAGLES RUN OFFENSE
New Orleans has allowed opponents just 80 yards per game on the ground, a league best. Opposing runners average only 3.7 yards per carry against a Saints defense that has the third highest rushing attempts in the league against them. The team's linebackers are aggressively getting into the backfield and making plays because of the defensive success up front. Ends Jordan and Okafor are as good against the run as they are pass rushers, and the defense is decisively winning battles in the middle. Two unsung performers up front have been defensive tackles Taylor Stallworth and Tyeler Davison, who are often drawing multiple blockers and not only stonewalling them, but often slicing into the offensive backfield.
The Eagles rank just 22nd in rushing offense, averaging 103 yards/game, a far drop from their number 3 ranking just a year ago. Their top back, Jay Ajayi, is on injured reserve with a knee injury. The team has responded with a back-by-committee approach, using Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement, and Josh Adams, but with little sustained success. The three have combined for 595 yards and and average of around four yards per carry and only 3 rushing touchdowns.
~ Matchup to Watch: Saints defensive ends vs. Eagles offensive tackles ~
The New Orleans defensive line looks like it may have a big advantage over Philadelphia's offensive line, particularly on the outside. Ends Cam Jordan, Alex Okafor, and reserve Trey Hendrickson will be expected to contain not only Philly's outside rushing attack, but put pressure on Wentz as well. The Saints defensive tackles should be able to win the point of attack inside against the Eagles interior of Isaac Seumalo, Jason Kelce, and Brandon Brooks. Okafor may have a rough outing against Philly's left tackle Jason Peters, but Jordan's matchup with right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai could be a nightmare for the visitors all afternoon.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
Although the Saints defense looks to have a significant advantage against the Eagles running game, Philadelphia must try and establish some rushing balance to reduce the pressure on Wentz. The Saints success this season at covering the tight end will be put to a serious test against Ertz and Goedert, weapons that Philadelphia uses to near perfection. The Eagles deep corps of receivers will test a New Orleans secondary that can still be susceptible to big plays. The Saints will look to pressure Wentz with their talented defensive line and well timed blitzes, hoping to take advantage of the Eagles struggles to protect their young signal caller. Expect the New Orleans cornerbacks to be physical with the Philadelphia receivers, an approach they've had success with and that the Eagles wideouts have struggled with at times. The Saints defense is playing with more confidence than at any other point this year, and they are beginning to create the pressure and turnovers that brought this unit success a year ago.
What is the biggest matchup for the New Orleans defense against the Philadelphia offense
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Saints CB's vs. Eagles WR's
Saints linebackers/safeties vs. Eagles tight ends
Saints DE's vs. Eagles OT's
Saints DT's vs. Eagles interior line