Welcome to Divisional Weekend of the 2018 NFL season. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
The fourth divisional round game of the 2018 NFL playoffs will take place at the Superdome in New Orleans as the Saints face the Philadelphia Eagles. Here’s what to watch for:
A FAMILIAR TALE FOR PHILADELPHIA
The Eagles are attempting to win their second consecutive Super Bowl the way they did last year – with starting quarterback Carson Wentz on the shelf and Nick Foles starting. While Foles did win them a world championship a year ago, his success is directly tied to the system Doug Pederson places him in, due to his talent level being below that of Wentz’s.
Wentz is very much like Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger. He can extend plays inside and outside of the pocket, he’s intelligent, he’s strong-armed and accurate. Problem is, his style – like Ben’s – can also lead to injuries, hence Foles’ playing time over the last two years.
To compensate for the drop-off in skill, Pederson’s version of the West Coast offense helps out Foles with complex formations, intricate route combinations, run-pass options and mesh concepts with wheel routes behind them. The Eagles’ running game, carried out by a host of backs including Josh Adams, Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood, is schematically diverse but hasn’t been particularly productive. Veterans Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement have been on the shelf for most of the season.
In addition to All-Pro tight end Zach Ertz, the Eagles employ former Packers tight end Richard Rodgers and second-round rookie Dallas Goedert. Rodgers and Goedert replace the departed Burton and Brent Celek in Pederson’s multi-tight-end formations. Their wideouts are Alshon Jeffery, a great red zone threat (and also difficult to press at the line of scrimmage), the speedy Golden Tate and Mike Wallace, and slot receivers Nelson Agholor and Jordan Matthews.
Philadelphia’s offensive line is one of the league’s best. Anchored by Jason Peters, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, Lane Johnson and Issac Seumalo, this group has acquired many accolades over the years.
EAGLES’ DEFENSE BOTH SIMPLE AND CRAFTY
By definition, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s scheme is a 4-3 defense predominantly featuring zone coverage, one-gap run fits and 46 pressure looks pre-snap that become conservative post-snap. But recently, Schwartz has developed more aggressive ways to get after quarterbacks.
According to the MMQB’s Andy Benoit, “One tactic Schwartz uses is to align (Pro Bowler Fletcher) Cox directly over the center. Then Schwartz either overloads one side or goes with a diamond look, flanking Cox with two defenders on each side. Both strategies isolate Cox against the center, whom he can always overpower.”
In addition to Cox, the Eagles boast an embarrassment of riches on their defensive line. Michael Bennett, Timmy Jernigan and Brandon Graham are the other starters, and they have performed so well for so long that even with former first-round pick Derek Barnett injured, proven veterans like Haloti Ngata and Chris Long can provide quality depth behind them.
The Eagles’ secondary has been ravaged by the injury bug all year long. Both of their top cornerbacks, Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills, are out for the season and nickel corner Sidney Jones has dealt with multiple ailments. Safety Rodney McLeod is also done until 2019 with a knee injury.
While Rasul Douglas and Avonte Maddox have held down the fort, they scare no one. Thanks to safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Corey Graham, the team’s back-end has been kept afloat.
Philadelphia’s linebackers are led by Nigel Bradham and Jordan Hicks.
SAINTS’ DEFENSE HAS REBUILT INTO A RESPECTABLE UNIT
Ever since their Super Bowl win in 2009, the Saints’ defense has been in a perpetual rebuilding mode. Save for one season in 2013, New Orleans has ranked at or near the bottom in many categories virtually every season.
In some ways, that’s still true. The Saints finished the regular season just 29th against the pass and recorded only 18 interceptions, but they were also 14th overall, second against the run and tied for fifth in sacks. The two negative statistics may be a result of teams having to accumulate a ton of passing yardage in order to keep up with the Saints’ high-flying offense, but the latter numbers indicate that New Orleans has done a good job so far in accumulating talent in their front-seven.
The ever-improving Cameron Jordan, on the rise gap-stuffer Sheldon Rankins and rookie Marcus Davenport have all contributed to New Orleans’ upper-echelon pass rush and all anchor well against the run. Linebackers Demario Davis, Alex Anzalone and A.J. Klein are tackling machines.
Dennis Allen, the Saints’ defensive coordinator and former Raiders coach, has a very multiple defensive scheme. He uses a lot of personnel groupings and front-seven alignments, but nowhere is he more versatile than in his postsnap coverage rotations and usage of both man and zone. This fits perfectly with someone like cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who has become one of the NFL’s best shutdown defenders. Eli Apple, Kurt Coleman, Vonn Bell, Ken Crawley, P.J. Williams and Marcus Williams make up the rest of their secondary.
BREES AND COMPANY STILL EXCELLING IN BIG EASY
Drew Brees is still playing at an elite level, even while in his 18th season and with declining arm strength. His footwork and pocket presence is impeccable, his accuracy is deadly (as evidenced by his holding the NFL record for completion percentage four different times), his experience gives him a leg up against most coverages and is great at influencing pass defenders with his eyes, pump fakes and shoulder rolls.
For the most part, the Saints’ passing game has been built through having big, physical targets who can get open over the middle of the field. Head coach Sean Payton has employed such players before like Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham, and he has another such specimen in Michael Thomas. Thomas, the nephew of former NFL wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, is not just athletically gifted but also possesses strong hands and the knowledge of how to find holes against certain coverages. (The Saints also signed former Dallas Cowboy Dez Bryant in an attempt to replicate Thomas, but he suffered a torn Achilles before ever suiting up in black and gold.)
Trying to work the middle of the field helps Brees due to his lack of height, but Payton isn’t adverse against throwing the ball deep either. Tre’Quan Smith and Tommylee Lewis can both get down the field, and Keith Kirkwood and tight end Ben Watson are also red zone threats.
New Orleans doesn’t just like to throw the ball. Mark Ingram is a powerful runner and the Saints like to use Alvin Kamara with misdirection plays, screens and lining him up at wide receiver – both out wide and in the slot. His speed, route-running ability and reliable hands make him a threat no matter where he aligns.
The Saints’ offensive line is made up of the athletic Terron Armstead, run-blocking extraordinaire Andrus Peat, maulers Max Unger and Larry Warford and the ascending Ryan Ramczyk. They are one of the best units in football.
Another tactic the Saints love to use is throwing out of run-heavy personnel. According to Benoit, “No NFC coach uses formations with six offensive linemen more than Sean Payton, who loves to throw from that grouping. Also, its tight ends and running backs often help with chip blocks. This slows those players as they’re getting into their routes, but that’s fine because they can serve as check-down options, and Brees’s eyes don’t reach them until late in the play.”