Whenever someone talks about the New Orleans Saints, the first name that gets mentioned is Drew Brees.
The quarterback, along with head coach Sean Payton, literally saved the franchise when he signed in 2006 and elevated it to playoff contention immediately. The Saints have been a perennial contender ever since, including winning the Super Bowl in four seasons ago. Brees puts up prolific numbers every season and is Hall of Fame-bound when his career ends. He is the engine that makes the offense go and poses a challenge to the Eagles defense on the same level that Peyton Manning did.
"Drew Brees has excellent numbers – blitz, not blitz, coverage, non-coverage," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "I know he's one of the best blitz-rated quarterbacks there is. This offense is so efficient, and it's run on Drew Brees and his decision making and quick release. It really makes you defend the field both horizontally and vertically because all five of his eligible receivers are up and active. A lot of the younger quarterbacks can't pull that off, a lot of the older quarterbacks can't, but he's been in the system and he's been with Sean (Payton) for a while. They just stretch you both vertically and horizontally."
Payton has long been applauded for his offensive genius, going back to his days as a coordinator. He is one of the brightest and most innovative football minds in the game and is always finding new ways to exploit defenses.
"(Payton's) probably one of the best at formation and matchups that has ever been around," Davis said. "He's got such a great mind and makes you defend the width and depth of the field. I think him and Drew are really one in the same person. They've worked so much together that no matter what's in Sean's head, Drew can execute, and that's the key to great offensive football – when the quarterback has the same understanding as the coordinator or head coach, in this case."
The most dynamic weapon the Saints have on offense is 6-foot-7 superstar tight end Jimmy Graham. The former college basketball player is a huge, athletic freak who lines up and moves like a wide receiver and catches everything. Graham is about as uncoverable as it gets, and Brees, who likes to spread the ball around, looks to him often – even more so in the red zone.
"(Graham's) the number one target they have, and he's been their most consistent target," Davis said. "He's big, athletic, catches everything thrown near him. They move him all over the place, so it's tough to track and get a beat on him. He is the number one target, but one of the attributes of all great offenses like this one is the ball goes to everybody, it goes to the open man, and Drew Brees does a great job of doing that quickly."
The Saints have dominated the league on offense for years. Very few times are defenses able to even slow them down, much less stop them completely. Since Brees is so unfazed by the blitz and picks defenses apart when they send extra rushers (68.6 completion percentage, 1,422 yards, 11 touchdowns, two interceptions), the key is to disguise coverages and try to confuse him that way so that he either holds the ball an extra split second or makes a poor decision.
"I think the key is to change up coverage," Davis said. "It's more about the quarterback than the actual coverage and what he's looking at, what he sees, how quickly he can read it. (Brees) has seen every coverage, and he's seen all kinds of different tactics, so has Sean (Payton). They have adjustments to everything. I think constantly shifting (coverage) on them is the best way to go about it."
It will be incumbent upon the Eagles cornerbacks to jam Saints receivers at the line and be physical with them in one-on-one situations. Any kind of free release allows them to establish timing and get into a rhythm with Brees.
"Our corners have really stepped up," Davis said. "They played great the other night (against Dallas), they continue to play well, they challenge people, they make plays at the ball. We're really excited about our corner play."
Cornerback Cary Williams doesn't need any encouragement to get physical with whomever he is assigned to cover.
"I'm going to play my game regardless, I could care less what Drew Brees does with his release," Williams said. "I'm going to be in the receiver's face, I'm going to disrupt the timing. I'm going to try my very best to play 60 minutes as tough as I possibly can."
As the secondary attempts to disrupt the timing between Brees and his receivers, the Eagles pass rush will need to perform better than it did against the Cowboys. While Davis does not measure pressure by sacks and was content with the job the front seven did in Dallas, the bottom line is Cowboys quarterback Kyle Orton was rarely hurried and had ample opportunity to make throws. In general, though, the pass rush, even when it has not recorded sacks, has been able to create enough pressure to force opposing quarterbacks into making poor throws that have led to turnovers.
"I think our pass rush has been pretty solid, and I think it's a product of some of these turnovers that we're getting," Davis said. "It's not always sacks. I think we get our share of (hits). I think we're getting there. Looking at the tape the other night, the ball coming out that quick – it's a different time set and much harder to get to those guys when the ball's out right away. And sometimes you're winning (beating the block), and if (Kyle Orton) had held onto the ball one more count, we would have had him. But that's why they get rid of it so quickly. I'm very happy with the pass rush and where it is, I think we've gotten a lot of pressure and it's been a major cause for some of the turnovers we've forced."
Nose tackle Bennie Logan will be a key cog in the pass rush and admits he must get pressure up the middle in order to obstruct Brees' vision and prohibit him from stepping up in the pocket.
"He's a great quarterback, you can't take that away from him," Logan said. "But because he's shorter, I have to make sure I get pressure up the middle and make him uncomfortable in the pocket. I have to get some kind of pressure to affect the way he looks over his reads. Don't give him any big throwing lanes in the middle. He's a drop-back quarterback but he also steps out a lot to get the ball out. We have to get pressure in the middle, at least push the center back into his lap and make him uncomfortable."
Another wrinkle in the Saints offense is how much Brees uses his running backs in the passing game. Both Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles caught over 70 passes, and no other pair of running backs in the league even came close to that mark. Each has soft hands and is difficult to bring down in the open field, as Thomas runs with power and Sproles with lightning speed after the catch.
"That's going to be our biggest task, handling them out of the backfield, flaring and going out for passes," linebacker Mychal Kendricks said. "Those guys are quick, agile and can get into small spaces."
Overall, Davis understands the monumental challenge at hand, but he believes in his defense because of how he's seen the unit come together over the course of the season and how each player sacrifices to make the whole better.
"The biggest thing that's happened in this defense is the chemistry and the type of men and how much they are really playing for each other," Davis said." I've been on a lot of different teams through a lot of seasons, and this one's unique in that the guys truly are unselfish. They are truly playing for the success of their teammates. They believe in each other."