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Eagles-Saints: What To Watch

Posted Nov 4, 2012

When The Eagles Have The Ball

Despite reported interest from the Eagles, former St. Louis Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo, a one-time Reid assistant, chose to take a job as the Saints defensive coordinator in the offseason. Shortly thereafter, the ramifications of “Bountygate” came through and the Saints were stripped of their head coach (Sean Payton) for the season, among several other suspensions. Now, through seven games, the Saints defense has been thoroughly underwhelming.

At 30.9 points per game, the Saints rank 30th in scoring defense and come in 32nd in total defense (based on yardage). Of the 28 quarters they’ve played this season, the Saints defense has held the opponent off the scoreboard in only three. And there’s been no real strength of the Saints defense. Opponents have averaged 8.7 yards per pass attempt, making the Saints 32nd in the league in that category, and they haven’t fared much better against the run, with a 30th-best mark of 5.03 yards per rush.

Personnel-wise, there’s been some upheaval as well. Former Eagles defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley was signed in the offseason after a productive year in Denver and is listed atop the team’s depth chart, but he was a healthy inactive last week. Jonathan Vilma returned from his “Bountygate” suspension last week and stepped back into the starting lineup, playing over 80 percent of the defensive snaps on the weak side instead of the middle. Curtis Lofton, signed from the Atlanta Falcons in the offseason, is the other every-down linebacker for a defense that plays nickel more often than not.

All of that is to say that this is a prime opportunity for the Eagles offense to get back on track. From 2008-2011, the Eagles averaged 26.25 points per game. This season, that mark has fallen dramatically, all the way to 17.1 points per game. Only twice have the Eagles crossed the 20-point threshold, a disappointment which had led to questions about potential personnel changes. Even Michael Vick admitted following the loss to the Falcons that his job was on the line with third-round rookie Nick Foles potentially waiting in the wings for an opportunity.

Regardless of who lines up under center for the Eagles, this is an opportunity that must be taken advantage of. The only other personnel question pertained to right guard, where fifth-round rookie Dennis Kelly will start again for an injured Danny Watkins. Kelly acquitted himself quite well, and can probably be trusted to hold down the spot until Watkins’ chronic ankle problem calms down. King Dunlap is expected to retain the left tackle spot after another solid performance.

On the outside, DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin each only have one 100-yard game to their credit this season (though Jackson does have a 99-yard performance as well), and this could be a chance for the offense to regain its explosiveness. Along those lines, both Jackson and running back LeSean McCoy both have explosive track records in domes. Jackson has averaged 24.2 yards per catch and 100.6 receiving yards per game in seven career dome games, both well above his career averages. McCoy meanwhile, has averaged 104.2 rushing yards per game and a tremendous 6.7 yards per carry in five dome games since 2010.

Eagles Projected Starting Lineup
Offense Defense
QB Michael Vick LDE Jason Babin
RB LeSean McCoy LDT Cullen Jenkins
FB Stanley Havili RDT Fletcher Cox
WR Jeremy Maclin RDE Trent Cole
LT King Dunlap WILL LB Akeem Jordan
LG Evan Mathis MIKE LB DeMeco Ryans
C Dallas Reynolds SAM LB Mychal Kendricks
RG Dennis Kelly LCB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
RT Todd Herremans RCB Nnamdi Asomugha
TE Brent Celek SS Nate Allen
WR DeSean Jackson FS Kurt Coleman

When The Saints Have The Ball

Even though "Bountygate" was a result of what happened with the Saints defense, the residual impact might have been most felt on the offensive side of the ball.

Saints head coach Sean Payton is one of the league's most dynamic offensive minds and has meshed brilliantly with All-Pro quarterback Drew Brees. Last year, the Saints had one of the most prolific offenses in the history of the NFL with 547 total points, an average of 34.2 points per game.

Brees did indeed have the best season in NFL history from a yardage standpoint as he broke Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino's all-time single-season record for most passing yards with 5,476 (an average of 342.3 passing yards per game).

It's not like Brees is slacking in 2012 despite the team's 2-5 start. He's second in the league in passing yards (2,310) and second in touchdowns (20). There are, however, some noticeable differences. Brees completed 71.2 percent of his passes, an NFL record, in 2011. That number is down to 59.7 percent in 2012.

From a team standpoint, the Saints were balanced in 2011 ranking first in passing yards and sixth in rushing yards. This season, the Saints are first in passing yards and last in rushing yards. They are sixth in scoring, but 31st in time of possession.

The struggles by the defense have forced the Saints to put the ball in the air more frequently. Marques Colston is the team's leading receiver with 40 catches for 580 yards and five touchdowns. Jimmy Graham brings amazing athleticism to the tight end position. Slowed down in recent weeks by an ankle injury, the 6-7, 265-pound Graham had five catches for 63 yards and a touchdown Sunday against Denver.

The player who would have been the focal point for the Eagles might have been versatile running back Darren Sproles, but he is out for the game with a hand injury. He has caught 39 passes for 323 yards and has scored four touchdowns. He also has 117 rushing yards at an average of 4.5 yards per carry. Sproles would have been a dangerous weapon in the screen game as he ranks fifth in the NFL in total yards after the catch with 264.The Saints have talent up front especially at the interior positions with two Pro Bowl guards in Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans. New Orleans ranks fifth in sacks per pass attempt in 2012.

Even though the run game hasn't been utilized much in 2012, there are still some players to contend with. Pierre Thomas is the feature back pacing the Saints with 257 rushing yards at an average of 4.4 yards per carry. Former first-round pick Mark Ingram does most of his damage in short-yardage situations.

The one area where the Eagles have to be careful is in the red zone. The Saints have the league's best red zone offense in 2012 with a staggering 73 percent success rate thanks to the bevy of weapons and Brees' pinpoint accuracy.

Despite the Saints' record, new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' task does not get any easier come Monday night.

Saints Projected Starting Lineup
Offense Defense
WR Marques Colston LDE Cameron Jordan
LT Jermon Bushrod DT Brodrick Bunkley
LG Ben Grubbs DT Sedrick Ellis
C Brian de la Puente RDE Will Smith
RG Jahri Evans SLB Scott Shanle
RT Zach Strief MLB Curtis Lofton
TE Jimmy Graham WLB David Hawthorne
WR Devery Henderson LCB Jabari Greer
QB Drew Brees SS Roman Harper
FB Jed Collins FS Malcolm Jenkins
RB Pierre Thomas RCB Patrick Robinson

Key Matchups

WR DeSean Jackson vs. Saints’ Secondary

Despite the offense’s less-than-gaudy numbers, wide receiver DeSean Jackson is still on pace to have a career season. Through seven games, Jackson has 34 catches for 524 yards and a score. Unfortunately, the offense has failed to generate much through the air and ranks 15th in the league in passing offense.

The good news is that he and the Eagles offense will face a Saints defense that has struggled to contain the opponents’ passing game this season. New Orleans ranks 30th against the pass this season, giving up 304.6 yards per game through the air. And despite their top-ranked passing offense, the Saints defense hasn’t been able to keep up.

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s group has allowed a receiver to go over 100 yards five times this season, including three in the past three weeks. This bodes well for Jackson, who can use his speed to get behind the Saints’ secondary. Jackson and the offense will hope to continue this trend and get the Eagles back on track.

TE Jimmy Graham vs. LB Mychal Kendricks

Sure, the Saints’ wide receivers are impressive. But perhaps their best offense weapon (outside of Brees of course) is tight end Jimmy Graham. Last season, Graham had one of the best years for a tight end in NFL history. He was the Saints’ most prolific player, hauling in 99 receptions for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns – all team highs.

Graham is the latest top-tier tight end rookie linebacker Mychal Kendricks will face this season. While covering the tight end used to be a major issue for the Eagles, the results this season have been impressive. No opposing team’s starting tight end has scored on the Eagles this season, and those starters are averaging only 3 catches and 28.4 yards per game.

Not only is Graham an adept pass-catcher, at 6-7 and 265 pounds he is also a load to bring down. Kendricks has dealt with questions about his 5-11, 239-pound frame since college. Monday night will provide him the ultimate opportunity to silence his skeptics.

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