The New Orleans Saints return to the field this Sunday afternoon, hosting a divisional playoff game against the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. This is a rematch of a November 18th contest when the Saints mauled the Eagles 48-7 at home. New Orleans ended the regular season ranked 14th in total defense, allowing 349 yards and 22 points per game. They oppose a 14th ranked Philadelphia offense that averaged 22.9 points and 365 yards per game. The Eagles had to win their final three games and get some help just to get into the playoffs, then had to win on the road in Chicago to get into this position, and all this amidst a quarterback change. The top seeded Saints meanwhile, have essentially had two weeks to get fresh legs and rest injuries. Let's have a look at how the New Orleans defense matches up against the offense of the defending Super Bowl champions.
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE vs. EAGLES PASS OFFENSE
New Orleans ranked just 29th against the pass, surrendering 269 yards per game. After some early season breakdowns in their pass defense, the Saints were able to fortify themselves on the back end, holding four of five opponents to less than 210 yards passing heading into the last two games. A midseason trade for cornerback Eli Apple vastly improved the secondary, as Apple teamed with Marshon Lattimore to give the team as solid a corner tandem as there is in the league. They are a physical duo that perform best in man coverage, although they each have a penchant for drawing flags, particularly early in games. Lattimore and Apple each have two of the team's 12 interceptions, tied with safeties Marcus Williams and Chris Banjo for the team lead. The Saints safety play has also improved since early in the year. Williams and Vonn Bell each have the coverage skills to take on an opposing tight end or slot receiver, and have provided solid support of the cornerbacks. P.J. Williams, a major liability early, has played better in the slot with limited snaps. The New Orleans linebackers have been able to take on most tight ends and running backs and virtually eliminate them from the opponent's passing game. Alex Anzalone, Demario Davis, and A.J. Klein have given the team an extremely effective unit that had previously been a team weakness. They've also proven to be effective blitzers, combining for nine sacks and a number of quarterback pressures. The Saints had 49 sacks on the year, led by a dominating defensive line that is able to pressure the passer without the aid of blitzing. All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan had another excellent season, leading the team with 12 sacks, 21 quarterback hits, and a career high 18 tackles for loss. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins gave them a monstrous inside presence, bringing down the quarterback a career high 8 times and providing consistent interior pressure. Ends Alex Okafor and rookie first rounder Marcus Davenport combined for 8.5 sacks, giving the defense good complimentary pressure opposite of Jordan. Defensive tackle David Onyemata had three sacks against Dallas, and played well over the last month of the season. New Orleans held five of six opponents to less than 210 yards through the air heading into the last two games of the regular season. This defense dominated the Eagles offense when these teams met in November, holding Carson Wentz to just 156 yards passing, racking up 3 sacks and intercepting him 3 times. As everyone knows though, the Saints will be facing a different Eagle quarterback in the rematch.
A back injury to starting quarterback Carson Wentz forced Philadelphia to turn back to last year's playoff hero and Super Bowl M.V.P., Nick Foles. The Eagles passing attack averaged 267 yards per game this season, good for 7th in the league. Foles had started the first two games of Philadelphia's season, with mixed results, while Wentz recovered from knee surgery. He took the reins again for the final three games of the year, leading the Eagles into the playoffs where he started in the wild card victory over Chicago. Foles has a 5-1 record as a starter this season, averaging 280 yards passing with 7 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. Foles has a talented and dangerous set of receivers to work with, led by tight end Zach Ertz, who was second in the league with 116 receptions that went for 1,163 yards and 8 touchdowns. The Eagles can attack defenses with a second tight end nearly as talented in rookie 2nd round pick Dallas Goedert, who had 33 catches for 334 yards and 4 scores. They also stretch defenses with a trio of productive wideouts in Alshon Jeffery (65 catches, 843 yards, 6 touchdowns), Nelson Agholor (64-736, 4), and Golden Tate (30-278, 1). Jeffery is Foles' favorite target, and came up big against the Bears with six receptions for 82 yards. The Eagles offensive line has allowed 40 sacks of their signal callers this season, but Foles is mobile and gets rid of the ball quickly, traits that caused him to go down just once against the talented Bears pass rush.
~ Matchup to Watch: Saints secondary vs. Eagles receiving corps ~
The New Orleans defensive backs held Agholor and Goedert without a catch during their week 11 meeting, and contained Ertz, Jeffery, and Tate to a combined 11 receptions for just 96 yards. Tate in particular has been a thorn in the side of the Saints, averaging 110 yards receiving with five touchdowns on 31 catches in four meetings against New Orleans while with the Detroit Lions.
SAINTS RUN DEFENSE vs. EAGLES RUN OFFENSE
New Orleans finished the regular season ranked 2nd against the run, letting up only 80 yards per game and 3.6 yards/carry. The Saints allowed only four opponents to top 100 yards rushing against them, and held top backs like Saquon Barkley, Todd Gurley, Joe Mixon, Ezekiel Elliott, and Christian McCaffrey to under 76 yards on the ground. Defensive tackles Rankins, Taylor Stallworth, and Tyeler Davison have obliterated opposing lines, blowing up plays from the inside. Cam Jordan and Okafor are each outstanding run defenders on the edge, which allow the team's linebackers to flow freely to the ball carrier. Davis leads the Saints in tackles with 110, and is a tenacious sideline to sideline defender who upgraded the entire defense upon his offseason signing. The New Orleans secondary is solid in run support, particularly Bell, who is second on the team in tackles for the third year in a row. The Saints held Philadelphia to only 58 yards on the ground when the two teams last met, and must again reduce Philly to a one-dimensional team for their best chance of success.
Philadelphia's 28th ranked rushing offense has provided little balance this season, averaging only 98 yards per contest and 3.9 yards per carry. Rookie Josh Adams leads the team's back by committee with 511 yards and 3 scores, including 53 yards and a touchdown against the Saints in November. Wendall Smallwood and former Saint Darren Sproles are smaller backs, used in passing situations or as a change of pace. Sproles and Smallwood did lead the Eagles running game in the playoff victory over the Bears, but combined for just 41 yards on 21 carries.
~ Matchup to Watch: Saints defensive line vs. Eagles offensive line ~
New Orleans must be able to dominate the line of scrimmage as they did in the first match up to prevent Philadelphia from establishing any kind of offensive balance. Foles tends to get rid of the ball faster than Wentz in the passing game, so the Saints must be able to get quick pressure on the Philly quarterback to force him into quick decisions. Jordan and Okafor each had good games against Eagles offensive tackles Jason Peters and Lane Johnson, and will now have Marcus Davenport, who sat out November's game. Rankins and Stallworth controlled the interior against the Eagles line as well, establishing complete control of the line of scrimmage.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
The Saints would obviously be thrilled with another defensive performance like the one that they got on November 18th, when they held the Eagles to just one score, 13 first downs, and 196 total yards. The New Orleans defense became a playmaking unit over the second half of the season. They forced multiple turnovers in nine different games this year, and forced 19 turnovers in the nine games leading up to the season finale. They held 10 of their opponents to 20 points or less, including a string of six consecutive games of less than 20 points. The Saints will look to again dominate the line of scrimmage with their formidable front seven, hoping to snuff out a weak Eagle running game and put heavy pressure on Foles. The New Orleans secondary, particularly Lattimore and Apple, must be physical at the line of scrimmage to alter the quicker routes that Foles likes to throw. This Philadelphia roster is certainly seasoned when it comes to postseason play. This game will be played in front of the raucous Superdome crowd, who makes things tougher for any offense. If the Saints defense is able to shut down drives early on, that will ratchet up the intensity of the crowd even more, and could lead to fatal mistakes by the Eagles offense as the game goes along against this underrated Saints defense.
Which is the most important match up for the Saints defense against the Eagles offense?
This poll is closed
Cam Jordan/Marcus Davenport/Alex Okafor vs. Jason Peters/Lane Johnson
Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata vs. Eagles interior line
Saints linebackers/safeties vs. Ertz/Goedert
Marshon Lattimore/Eli Apple/P.J. Williams vs. Jeffery/Agholor/Tate