Eagles-Saints guide: Saints' offense is daunting challenge for reigning champs

NFC Divisional Round
: Philadelphia Eagles (9-7) at New Orleans Saints (13-3)
When: Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans
Odds: Saints -8
Over/Under: 51

Tale of the tape

2018 Stats Eagles Saints
Points Per Game 22.9 (18) 31.5 (3)
Points Allowed/Game 21.8 (12) 22.1 (14)
Rush Yards/Game 98.1 (28) 126.6 (6)
Pass Yards/Game 267 (7) 253 (12)
Total Yards/Game 365.3 (14) 379.2 (8)
Rush Yards Allowed/Game 96.9 (7) 80.2 (2)
Pass Yards Allowed/Game 269 (T-29) 269 (T-29)
Total Yards Allowed/Game 366.2 (23) 349.1 (14)
Third-Down Offense 41.0% (12) 44.6% (7)
Third-Down Defense 35.5% (6) 41.3% (24)
Team Sacks 44 (T-8) 49 (T-5)
Turnover Differential -6 (25) +8 (7)

(Regular-season rank in parentheses)


Will the Eagles learn from their Week 11 mistakes vs. the Saints?

Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.

Keep those words in mind as you watch the final game of the divisional-round weekend. The Eagles and Saints met in Week 11, which ended in a 48-7 New Orleans rout. In that contest, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who was overly concerned with Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara, came up with a novel approach for slowing the duo down.

Unsurprisingly, it backfired.

Schwartz decided to double-team both players on some plays, hoping that eliminating the Saints’ two best receiving threats would slow down the entire offense.

For example, on this 2nd-and-15 play from late in the first quarter, the Saints put Drew Brees in shotgun and empty the backfield. Kamara is wide to the right next to Thomas, and he runs a vertical route while the wide receiver executes a shallow crosser:


Here's the coverage the Eagles use as they double-team both Thomas and Kamara:


The Eagles even bring the free safety down from the deep middle to jump Thomas' crossing route. That exposes the area the safety leaves, however, which is exactly where Brees throws, finding tight end Dan Arnold for a 23-yard gain:


Later in the game, the Saints again put Kamara and Thomas on the same side of the formation, and the Eagles still double-team both players. That allowed Brees to find Tre’Quan Smith on a shallow crossing route:


Eagles fans are hoping Schwartz learned lessons in Week 11. However, if he insists on using more double-team coverages, Philadelphia might give up some big passing plays again.

Biggest mismatch

Saints WR Michael Thomas vs. Eagles CB Avonte Maddox

The Saints move Thomas all around the formation, but they'll surely use him to attack Eagles rookie cornerback Avonte Maddox, who typically lines up on the left.

Thomas is a smooth route runner who understands how to get open against any coverage, and Brees has a 104.5 passer rating when targeting him, per The Quant Edge.

Listed at 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, Maddox faces a severe size disadvantage against the 6-3 and 212-pound Thomas, who should be successful in jump-ball and contested-catch situations. If New Orleans can scheme Thomas into a one-on-one matchup with Maddox in the red zone, the wideout should win that battle easily.

Thomas should also dominate Maddox when the rookie is in man coverage. The Eagles will likely play a lot of zone to put Maddox in the best situations for his skill set. However, they'll be forced to play man at times too while providing Maddox with deep safety help.

But that won’t help Maddox in the intermediate parts of the field where Thomas is a master at getting open on slants, digs, and out routes. Here’s a great example of him separating on a slant:


He aligns with a plus split opposite Steelers cornerback Joe Haden, and then physically powers through the jam, generating enough separation to pick up the first down after the catch.

Thomas did a good job releasing outside and getting Haden’s momentum moving that way. He used that momentum against the cornerback, pushing Haden wide and accelerating at a 45-degree angle upfield to separate.

While Thomas will see a lot of zone and double coverage, he should take advantage of snaps against Maddox in man coverage. If he does, the 25-year-old could top his four-catch, 92-yard outing the last time these two teams clashed.

3 keys to the game

Can New Orleans hit double moves? Why didn't the Bears attempt more double moves during the first half against the Eagles? That's one of the most significant questions after wild-card weekend.

The Eagles' secondary has been beaten up all season, with only one other team playing more defensive backs. The group of young pups the team fields is talented but raw, and often overly aggressive while looking to jump short routes. Dangle a slant or a quick in-breaking route in front of them, and they will drive toward the ball.

Chicago figured that out in the second half and connected on several double moves, most notably sluggo routes (slant-and-go). The Saints should take note of that strategy.

Can the Saints' offensive line protect Brees? The Saints' offensive line is solid, but the Eagles’ defensive front looks like an All-Pro ballot. Fletcher Cox is playing the best football of his career. Brandon Graham seems to be getting better with age, too, and Michael Bennett remains a force.

Philly's defense is creating pressure on 30 percent of the opposing quarterback’s dropbacks, according to Football Outsiders. Meanwhile, the Saints concede a pressure on only 23 percent of Brees’ dropbacks, a league-best mark achieved partly because the veteran gets rid of the ball so quickly. Something will have to give on Sunday.

The Foles conundrum: Is Nick Foles going to play like one of the best all-time postseason quarterbacks again? At some point does his fortune run out? Or is he really just that good?

I’m as confused as you. He'll need to play a clean game in New Orleans. If the Saints are given extra possessions and good field position, the Eagles won't have a shot.

Betting trends

Bettors aren't fading Foles. After the backup led the charge in a comeback win over the Chicago Bears during the Wild-Card round, his Eagles are attracting 53 percent of the money on the spread and 71 percent of the tickets on the moneyline, which has a haul of better than +300 in most shops.

The over is also the popular pick for the total, getting 75 percent of the overall tickets and 95 percent of the money. The Saints have scored at will at home during the postseason in the Brees-Payton era, averaging more than 35 points.


Mark Schofield: It's hard to bet against the Eagles and Foles after the team has won six of its last seven games. But with the Saints' offense getting back into form and Ted Ginn Jr. returning from a knee injury, New Orleans should end the Eagles’ run. Saints 28, Eagles 20.

John Owning: The Saints’ passing offense is too much for the Eagles' banged-up secondary, and Foles’ magic will finally run out. Saints 26, Eagles 14.

Oliver Connolly: Something is happening with this Eagles team again. The Saints are better, but I'm taking Philly. Eagles 24, Saints 21.

Alex Kolodziej: It was a good run for Foles and the Eagles. New Orleans will put on a show in the dome and play like a Super Bowl favorite should. Saints 34, Eagles 21.

Eagles-Saints guide: Saints' offense is daunting challenge for reigning champs
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