The New Orleans Saints division round playoff opponent is set, a rematch of their week eleven opponent this season, the Philadelphia Eagles. The Saints routed the Eagles that night, 48-7, but the defending Super Bowl champions are on a roll. They won five of their last six regular season games after that loss in New Orleans just to get into the playoffs, then defeated the Chicago Bears on the road in the wild card game. The Saints had the league's 8th ranked offense, averaging 379 yards per game, and only two teams scored more points than the New Orleans average of 31.5/game. Philadelphia ranked 23rd in total defense, allowing 366 yards per contest, but were 12th in scoring defense, surrendering 21.8 points/game. The Saints struggled offensively over the final month of the season, averaging just 19 points over their final five games. New Orleans has had essentially two weeks to rest though, hoping to get healthy and come into the playoffs with fresh legs. Let's take a look at how the Saints offense matches up against the defense of the defending champs.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE vs. EAGLES PASS DEFENSE
New Orleans finished the regular season with the 12th ranked passing attack in the league, averaging 253 yards per game. Quarterback Drew Brees threw for 3,992 yards on the year, his lowest total as a Saint, but he also threw 32 touchdown passes and only 5 interceptions. The nearly 40-yr. old Brees was as efficient as ever, completing an NFL record 74.4% of his throws, but the team's aerial production down the stretch raised some concerns. He threw for over 300 yards five times in the Saints first ten games, with 25 touchdowns and only one interception, but eclipsed the 300 barrier just once in his last five contests, throwing for 7 scores and four interceptions. Four of those touchdown passes in that stretch came during a week 12 victory over Atlanta, and Brees failed to surpass 205 yards passing in four games during that stretch.
Brees has two of the NFL's most productive receivers in wideout Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara. Thomas led the NFL in receptions (125) for a franchise record 1,405 yards and 9 touchdowns. Kamara added 81 catches for 709 yards and 4 scores, as the two combined for nearly 55% of the Saints passing game. The return of Ted Ginn Jr. to the lineup after a long injury absence will hopefully boost the receiving corps, which has struggled to provide a consistent threat outside of Thomas and Kamara. Ginn's return should give the Saints complimentary production expected from rookie third round pick Tre'quan Smith, who has flashed signs of brilliance but been wildly inconsistent. Smith has two 100 yard receiving games this season, including a 10-catch, 157 yard and 1 touchdown performance against the Eagles. Smith has been held without a catch in six games though, and has just 28 receptions for 427 yards and five scores on the year. Undrafted rookie Keith Kirkwood has made an impression on both Brees and the coaches as well, catching 13 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns. Both Kirkwood and Smith are physical, athletic wideouts who can make plays in traffic, something that veteran tight end Benjamin Watson has been able to do throughout his career. Watson, playing in his final season, has 35 receptions for 400 yards, two touchdowns and has the trust of his quarterback, but can no longer get the separation he once could.
The Saints offensive line was a team strength all season, and allowed Brees to be sacked just 17 times for the season. The line was a bit banged up down the stretch of the season though, and as a result Brees was hurried and harassed far more than he was earlier in the year. Left tackle Terron Armstead, who missed five of the last six games with a pectoral injury, will hopefully be back in the lineup to protect the blindside, again teaming with right tackle Ryan Ramczyk to form arguably the finest tackle duo in the league. Ramczyk sat out the season finale with a shoulder injury that has him listed as questionable for the game, but he too will likely play. Guards Larry Warford (knee) and Andrus Peat (hand) are each listed as questionable also, and have been hampered by injuries down the stretch.
The injured Saints line will have to get healthy in a hurry against a talented Philadelphia front seven that had 44 sacks on the year. The Eagles pass defense gave up 269 yards per game through the air, ranking 30th in the league, but were ravaged by injuries in their secondary all season. Philadelphia allowed eight 300-yd passers this season, including 303 to the Bears Mitchell Trubisky last week. A physical foursome of pass rushers up front are the key to any success this defense has against the pass. All-Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (10.5 sacks), along with talented edge rushers Michael Bennett (9), Chris Long (6.5), and Brandon Graham (4.5) are disruptive to any offensive scheme. Linebackers Nigel Bradham, Jordan Hicks, and Kamu Grugier-Hill can be devastating blitzers, but are extremely athletic in pass coverage. Despite the Eagles struggles at cornerback, safeties Corey Graham and former Saint Malcolm Jenkins can still be difference makers on the back end.
~ Matchup to Watch: Saints WR's vs. Eagles CB's ~
Smith had a spectacular outing when these teams met back in November, but Michael Thomas had a terrific game also, finishing with 4 catches for 92 yards and a score, while Kirkwood added a few key receptions of his own. They must be able to get quick separation against Philly corners Rasul Douglas and Avonte Maddox to neutralize the Eagle pass rush. Sidney Jones, who has missed the last four games with a hamstring injury but is questionable for this game, would be a jolt to the Philadelphia defense if he can return. The Saints have a playmaker of their own back into the lineup in Ginn that wasn't available when these teams last played. Ginn adds not only vital postseason experience, but a deep threat element to the New Orleans offense against an Eagles secondary that has allowed twelve different receivers to go over 100 yards receiving this season.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE vs. EAGLES RUN DEFENSE
The Saints averaged 127 rushing yards per game during the regular season, ranking 6th in the league. New Orleans dominated most of their opponents up front during the season with a powerful punch from their offensive line, one that paved the way to a league leading 26 rushing touchdowns. The Saints linemen have won their match ups at the point of attack, but are also athletic enough to get to the second level of defenses and open up running room downfield for two talented backs. Alvin Kamara led the team in rushing with 883 yards, including a franchise record 14 rushing touchdowns. Veteran back Mark Ingram added 645 yards and six scores on the ground, giving the Saints the most dangerous pair of versatile running backs in the league. Taysom Hill adds another element to the New Orleans running game, particularly in short yardage packages, but it's the talents of Ingram and Kamara that arguably drive the entire offense. Both backs pick up the tough yardage inside, but possess the athleticism to get to the edge or make a play in the open field, and Kamara threatens a defense from all over the field.
Philadelphia 7th ranked run defense has surrendered just 97 yards per game on the ground, but have allowed 4.7 yards per rush, ranking 21st in the NFL. Their linebackers and safeties attack the line of scrimmage with aggressive efficiency, and create big plays in opposing backfields. Veteran defensive tackle Haloti Ngata is still a space eating run stuffer, and ties up multiple blockers to free his linemates up to make plays.
~ Matchup to Watch: Kamara/Ingram vs. Bradham/Hicks/Jenkins ~
Ingram had 103 yards rushing against the Philly defense earlier this season, one of just five 100 yard games given up by the Eagles this year. Kamara added 71 yards on the ground, along with a big 37-yd. scoring reception when he beat Malcolm Jenkins on a sideline route. Jenkins, Bradham, and Hicks all have over 90 tackles, and are in on seemingly every play. The Saints like to use Kamara all over the offensive formation, which will challenge the Eagles to match up defensively, while they use Ingram to attack between the tackles.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
The Saints rolled up 546 total yards and 28 first downs on the Eagles defense when these two played on November 18. Brees was especially brilliant, throwing for 360 yards and four touchdowns. The New Orleans offensive production has dipped a bit since that game, but expect the arm of their 40 year old quarterback and the legs of their stars to be rejuvenated after a two week rest. The health of the Saints offensive line is vital. When healthy, they are the best unit in the league. They must be able to protect Brees against a tough Eagles front seven, so he can exploit what looks to be an aerial mismatch in favor of the Saints wideouts. With Philadelphia riding a wave of confidence following their first round playoff defeat of Chicago, expect New Orleans to come out with an aggressive offensive game plan in front of the home crowd. The Saints are typically far more explosive at home, and they'll look to challenge Philadelphia by using Thomas, Kamara, and Ingram early in hopes of establishing the dominant balance that they enjoyed through the first 2/3 of the season.
Which match up is the biggest key for the New Orleans offense against Philadelphia?
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Saints WR's vs. Eagles CB's
Saints OT's vs. Eagles Edge rushers
Kamara/Ingram vs. Eagles Linebackers/Safeties
Saints interior line vs. Cox/Ngata