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NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA – DECEMBER 23: Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints looks to throw the ball during the first half agains the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 23, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

In the New Orleans Saints week 11 48-7 blowout win over the Philadelphia Eagles, quarterback Drew Brees had one of the best games of his career. The 2018 MVP candidate earned a 153.2 passer rating while throwing for 363 yards and four touchdowns at 12.1 yards per attempt. It was one of eight games where Brees finished with a passer rating of 150.0 or higher in his career and his seventh-highest single-game yards per attempt average.

A dominant performance will be difficult for Brees and the Saints to replicate. The November blowout was the only game all season where Philadelphia lost by more than seven points. It was also their lowest score of the regular season by 10 points, and one of just three games where they scored less than 20 points.

This time around, New Orleans faces a rejuvenated Eagles team that has won six of their last seven games, including a hard-fought, 16-15 playoff victory last week against the Chicago Bears top-ranked defense.

Philadelphia is Counting on Their Quarterback

The Eagles run game has struggled for much of the year due to season-ending injuries to running backs Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement. They finished the season with a 28th-ranked 1,570 rushing yards and a 30th-ranked 3.9 yards per carry. In three of their last five games, Philadelphia failed to reach 60 yards rushing. This run game is unlikely to have much of an effect against the Saints defense, which finished the season ranked second in both rushing yards and yards per carry allowed.

Meanwhile, Nick Foles has played well in relief of starting quarterback Carson Wentz, whose season ended in week 14 because of a back injury. Since taking over as the starter, Foles has a completion percentage of 73.2, a 100.3 passer rating, and averages 8.03 yards per pass attempt. He was spectacular in a week 16 win over the Houston Texans, throwing for a career-high 471 touchdowns as well as four touchdowns with a 120.4 passer rating.

Statistically speaking, Foles is one of the best postseason quarterbacks in NFL history. His 105.2 passer rating is the highest ever by a quarterback with five or more postseason starts. Foles didn’t have a very efficient performance last week, but he got the job done against a great Bears defense, throwing for 266 yards and two touchdowns to make up for two first-half interceptions.

Some would argue that Foles is actually a more effective quarterback than Wentz. While their per game season averages are very similar, Foles does offer a key advantage. He tends to get rid of the ball faster than Wentz, resulting in a higher completion percentage and a lower sack rate. This helped Foles chip away at the Bears defense, who only sacked Foles once after recording 50 sacks in the regular season.

Capitalizing on a Saints defense that struggles against productive passing offenses is Philadelphia’s best chance of winning. Foles will attack the Saints in a variety of ways, and if the defense can’t hold up, the NFL’s all-time passing yardage leader has to be at his best.

State of the Saints Passing Game

Following Brees’ big game against Philadelphia, the Saints passing offense fell into a slump. They fell short of 200 passing yards over the next four games as opponents focused on minimizing wide receiver Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara. The rest of the Saints receiving options were unable to step in and fill the void. However, when Ted Ginn returned from an early-season injury in week 16, Brees threw for 326 yards in a win over the Steelers.

While Ginn’s presence appeared to snap the Saints passing slump just in time for the postseason, their offensive line simultaneously fell apart. Every Saints starting offensive lineman aside from center Max Unger sustained some sort of injury in the last three weeks of the season, along with backup left tackle Jermon Bushrod. Fortunately the whole starting offensive line and Bushrod were present for practice on Wednesday, although all of their individual statuses may not be clear until Sunday.

Left tackle Terron Armstead missed the Saints first meeting with Philadelphia, but the offensive line still played great. The Eagles failed to sack Brees on 30 drop backs and only hit him once.

One way the Saints mitigated Philadelphia’s pass rush was by establishing the run early. New Orleans gained 51 rushing yards on their first drive, which included a 38-yard Mark Ingram run on the first play from scrimmage. On the Saints next drive, Philadelphia came out with more loaded fronts and Brees responded with a lot of play action passes.

It was one of the few games all season where the Saints routinely attacked an opponent downfield. This was likely a deliberate strategy since the Eagles gave up the third-most yards to wide receivers in the regular season.

Eagles Defense Looks Somewhat Stronger Now

Injuries in the Eagles secondary certainly helped Brees and the Saints passing game in the November matchup. Philadelphia entered the game without cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills, and their situation only got worse as the game went on. Sidney Jones and Avonte Maddox started in place of Darby and Mills, but both left due to injury in the first half. It didn’t end there either, as backup Rasul Douglas exited with an injury as well.

Since then, however, Maddox and Douglas have stepped up and played well in starting roles. Out of all the qualifying NFL cornerbacks, Maddox finished with the fourth-lowest passer rating allowed all season, though he had a rough game last week against the Bears. Douglas finished the season with a 72.4 Pro Football Focus grade, good for 31st among cornerbacks. Former undrafted free agent Cre’Von LeBlanc has solidified the Eagles slot corner position since being signed in early November.

A great defensive front has helped the Eagles get by with a patchwork secondary. Their front four is able to get good pressure on their own, allowing Philadelphia to add more linebacker/safety support in coverage. Although this approach has mostly worked to this point, coverage breakdowns nearly cost them a win over Chicago last week.

Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky threw for 303 yards in the loss, going well above his season average of 230.2 yards per game. He was especially productive near the end, as he mostly victimized Maddox in the left cornerback spot. On the Bears final four drives, Trubisky completed four deep passes with Maddox in coverage, including a 25-yard completion to Allen Robinson that set up Chicago’s game-winning field goal attempt.

On the surface, the Eagles look vulnerable against an experience postseason quarterback like Brees, but Philadelphia’s defense tends to tighten up in key situations.

Philadelphia’s Situational Defense

Overall, the Eagles finished the regular season ranked 23rd in both yards allowed and yards allowed per play while recording just 17 takeaways. Yet they allowed the 12th fewest points in the league, which is likely due to their great efforts on third down and red zone plays.

Philadelphia allowed opponents to convert on just 35.3 percent of their third-down attempts, good for the sixth lowest rate allowed by an NFL defense. 16 of the Eagles 44 sacks came on third down plays. Their sack rate on third downs is 8.9 percent, a significant jump from their overall 6.6% percent sack rate.

Philadelphia also has the league’s top-ranked red zone defense, with regular season opponents scoring touchdowns on just 44.6 percent of their red zone attempts. Overall though, opponents scored on 38.6 percent of their drives against Philadelphia, which was the 10th-highest season rate among NFL defenses.

Big passing plays can help New Orleans avoid the Eagles stingy red zone defense, and they had several in the first meeting.

Can Brees do it Again?

Focusing on minimizing Thomas and Kamara backfired for Philadelphia in the November matchup. Injuries in the secondary didn’t help, but other Saints receivers were able to step up in that game. Rookie Tre’quan Smith got open for 157 yards and a touchdown on 10 catches as the Eagles constantly bracketed Thomas. Thomas was held to four receptions, but still gained 92 yards and caught a touchdown pass.

Philadelphia kept one of their best defenders, former Saint safety Malcolm Jenkins across from Kamara when he lined up as a wide receiver. Jenkins and the Eagles prevented Kamara from catching a single pass until he beat Jenkins deep for a 37-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter. Considering what the rest of the Saints receiving corps did, eliminating Kamara as a receiver for much of the game may not have been worth it.

With Ginn back in the lineup, it’ll be even more difficult for the Eagles to key in on Thomas and Kamara. Ginn will stretch the Eagles secondary, which should open up short and intermediate routes, where Thomas and Kamara thrive. The Eagles cornerbacks are playing better since the November blowout, but they’re still inexperienced and it showed last week.

Furthermore, the Eagles pass defense hasn’t played very well on the road. During the regular season, Philadelphia gave up 565 more passing yards, 1.1 additional yards per attempt, and six more touchdowns on the road than they did at home.

The Eagles passing game will likely do some damage to the Saints defense, however, Brees is more than capable of inflicting equal or greater damage on the Eagles defense. As long as the Saints battered offensive line holds up, they can win a shootout against the Eagles.

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