Eagle Eye: Sunday’s Showdown Won’t Be A Brees

About two months ago, I wrote over 1,500 words about this talented New Orleans Saints offense and all of the challenges they would present the Eagles in their November matchup. All of those qualities hold true for Sunday’s game. Drew Brees is one of the best quarterbacks in football. Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas form one of the most dynamic pairs of offensive weapons in the league. The offensive line is one of the five best in football and is probably near the top of that list. It’s a really, really impressive offense.

The Saints did struggle a bit in the back half of the season. From Week 3 through Week 12, they scored fewer than 30 points exactly once (a 24-23 win at Baltimore) and won all nine games. From Weeks 13-16, they eclipsed the 30-point plateau just once, their 31-28 win at home against Pittsburgh. This stretch included a 13-10 loss to Dallas on Thursday Night Football and a 12-9 victory against division-rival Carolina.

So that begs the question, is there anything going on with the Saints' offense?

The answer is not going to be a popular one with radio hosts and TV hot-take artists, but there’s never one clear-cut answer as to why teams are successful or not. I’ve written it countless times this year when the Eagles were struggling on either side of the ball. There are a million and one different factors that come into whether a play is successful or not. I mean, the Eagles are in the Divisional Round right now because Treyvon Hester got a fingertip on a ball that pushed it centimeters to the left, allowing it to ricochet down at just the right angle to hit the crossbar and bounce forward to send the Eagles to New Orleans. Football is a crazy game.

The Saints are human, and if you want to stop this offense, it starts with keeping Drew Brees from getting comfortable in the pocket as a passer. You have to get to Brees to keep this machine from running at full-tilt.

Before continuing, I recommend reading that preview I wrote about the Saints a few weeks ago if you haven’t already, just so you can get a better grasp of this offense and what it does at such a high level. Next, you should watch Eagles Game Plan from this week (see below), so you can dive into this matchup from both sides and see what the keys to victory are for the Eagles.

Now, before I get into the areas to attack the Saints, there’s one more part of that scheme that you have to know – the Saints are adept at attacking zone coverage.

ALL OF THE VIDEO CLIPS FEATURE AUDIO ANALYSIS FROM FRAN DUFFY

Head coach Sean Payton, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, and quarterback Drew Brees do a great job with their gameplanning and execution of attacking voids in coverage. The Eagles are a big Cover 3 team, but they play all forms of zone. They will need to mix things up and break some tendencies in this game to keep Brees on his toes. If he correctly predicts what you’re running and they have a play dialed up to beat it, that will lead to big plays on the back end.

To further keep Brees on his toes, you have to pressure him. That may require the occasional blitz, but the Eagles will certainly continue to rely on their four-man rush to get at the veteran quarterback. What’s important with him, however, is not just pressure off the edge, but also right in his face. Brees, like all of the top passers in the league, loves to climb the pocket. He wants to step up toward the line of scrimmage, away from the rush, and step into his throws in rhythm with the route concept. The defensive line can’t do much to impact him in the Saints' three-step pass game. That is where he basically is just catching and releasing the ball at the top of his drop. But on passes that attack the deep and intermediate areas of the field, where Brees has to hitch up in the pocket, that is where the rush can get home – and it’s where it NEEDS to get home.

The most effective rush against Brees is right in his face, preventing him from stepping up into the pocket. That is why, when you look at how the Saints have built their roster over his tenure there, they’ve been much more concerned with locking up their guards and center on the interior offensive line than with tackles. If you can get in Brees’ face, preventing him from stepping up, you can get him out of his comfort zone.

This is something we’ve seen at times in the second half of the year. I thought the Dallas Cowboys did a really good job of getting quick interior pressure, and even if their tackles didn’t get home, they slowly collapsed the pocket in his face, giving him nowhere to go when the edge pressure constricted him. This will be a big game for Fletcher Cox, Tim Jernigan, Haloti Ngata, and Hester, but it’s on the defensive ends as well. You can see in the videos above that edge rushers can have just as big of an impact in terms of getting in the quarterback’s face as the defensive tackles. That will be the goal of the defensive line.

At times, the Saints, who finished second in the league allowing just 20 sacks this year, like to go with six offensive linemen on the field. While that can give them extra beef in the run game, it also gives them an extra blocker in pass protection on vertical shot plays. In these situations, the Eagles have to get home as well.

The Saints were sacked multiple times on plays like this over their final few games. If the Eagles can find ways to get to Brees, it will go a long way toward a victory. Why? Because at the end of the day, pressure will impact any quarterback, no matter how good they are. The best passers in history can be negated by a steady dose of pressure. It doesn’t always result in sacks and turnovers. Sometimes a quarterback may just look rushed and hurried in the pocket, getting through his progressions quicker. More late checkdowns means fewer deep touchdowns, forcing the Saints to march the length of the field instead of striking quickly. We have seen this at times over the last few weeks.

Is this a critical flaw of Brees and the Saints? No. But it is a pathway to victory for this Eagles team. If you can get to Brees early in this game, you can potentially force him to get a bit hurried and rushed in the pocket, and that could cause him to either make bad decisions with the football downfield or get to his checkdowns sooner than he would like. Those are small victories for a defense that will be in for a big fight in this game. Will it always be pretty on Sunday? Of course not. The Saints are a great team. They’re going to move the ball at times. But this should be a very close game, and every possession will matter. The more the Eagles can get to and impact Brees, namely right in his face, the more likely of a positive outcome for Jim Schwartz’s defense.

Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts, Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the Journey to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging, and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices, and opponents.

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