New Orleans defensive coordinator Rob Ryan runs a 3-4 front, changes up his looks, and has had success bringing pressure off the edge. The Saints allowed 440.1 yards per game last season, an NFL record for leaky defenses. This season, the Saints reduced that number to 305.7 yards and shaved their points allowed per game from 28.4 points in 2012 to 19 points in 2013.
Here's the magic number: The Saints allowed 17 points or less in 11 of their regular-season games this season, winning 10 of those games.
"There's probably a handful of things," said Saints head coach Sean Payton after New Orleans wrapped up the regular season with a 41-17 win over Tampa Bay. "Getting (defensive coordinator) Rob (Ryan) in here and bringing that change and that enthusiasm, the rest of the coaches on that side of the ball. Then you add a few pieces (players) that we were able to add. I could go through and name them. So we added a few guys. So I think a handful of things.
"Look, there's an ownership to it where the players believe in what they're doing, they feel good about what they're doing. I think that's part of teaching. For the most part, I think we play a pretty good complementary game throughout the year offensively, defensively and in the kicking game. That success and that confidence is contagious. It can go the other way.
"I think that Rob and his staff and those guys on defense did a great job, and we still have work to do. That's encouraging."
How do the Eagles attack New Orleans? A lot depends on the looks the Saints offer, but there are some areas the Eagles are gooing to want to attack. Head coach Chip Kelly and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur will go into Saturday night's game with a plan, but they're also going to be flexible to the idea of changing play calls in the middle of the game.
The expectation is that New Orleans will pressure the line of scrimmage and try to take running back LeSean McCoy away from the equation with some run blitzes. It's critical that the Eagles handle the line of scrimmage and establish the ground attack and then allow quarterback Nick Foles to play his game, to use play-action fakes to set up the passing game, to drop back against a defense that isn't antsy to blitz.
There is no predetermined number of touches that McCoy needs, but it's fair to say that he has to be a central figure in the plan. If the Saints commit so much to McCoy that they leave other options open, the Eagles must get the football in the hands of DeSean Jackson and Brent Celek and Riley Cooper and everyone else who lines up and threatens the New Orleans defense.
This is not to suggest that McCoy is to be ignored. Instead, he is the player, more than any other, who Ryan must account for, and he is the player around whom the Saints are designing their defense.
Of course, it's easier said than done to slow McCoy. He led the NFL in rushing and total yards from scrimmage for a reason. He's a superstar football player, and he's been the focal point of every defense every week this season. McCoy is just that good.
He isn't alone in this attack, so the Eagles have to make sure to find the right matchup and try to gain an advantage. How the offense uses those 14 seconds or so as they set up at the line of scrimmage and the coaching staff talks into Foles' ear as they see together what the defense is doing is so critical. The speaker in Foles' helmet stays on until there are 15 seconds remaining on the play clock, and that's one reasonn the Eagles like to fire off their plays quickly. Having coach and quarterback on the same page with what they're seeing and what they anticipate seeing helps the Eagles adjust and move into a better formation and play.
How many points must the Eagles score to beat New Orleans? Most of us think there are going to be some points scored -- how does 34-28 Eagles sound? -- and that the offense has to be both explosive and patient. At its best, Ryan's defense moves a lot and brings a lot of pressure. New Orleans has had some outstanding games this season. The Eagles, then, must dictate to the Saints, and to do that the tempo must be right and everyone must understand the hot reads against the blitz and have a good feel for what the Saints are trying to do on every play.
The offense must have a big game, as it did against Chicago and so many other times this season. The Eagles must score to turn away the Saints and beat a defense that has made 2012 a forgettable failure, with 2013 a building block for the future.