How Will The Eagles Cover Saints TE Jimmy Graham?
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is a matchup nightmare in every sense of the word. First off, he's 6-foot-7 and weighs 260 pounds, with the athleticism to line up as a wide receiver. For the 2013 season, Graham had 86 receptions for 1,215 yards and a league-high 16 touchdowns. His monster performances came early in the season. From Weeks 2 through 5, he had four straight games of at least 100 yards receiving. He had two 10-catch performances and two multi-touchdown games in that span as well.
In Week 6, Graham was shut-out by the New England Patriots, failing to record a single catch on six targets. Since then, he's had just two 100-yard performances, though he remains extremely difficult to defend in the red zone.
What did the Patriots do? They used Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib to shadow Graham. Could the Eagles do the same? They certainly have the tall, physical cornerbacks to do so in Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams, though Brandon Boykin could also be used in the middle of the field.
According to Football Outsiders, the Eagles ranked 24th against opposing tight ends ,allowing an average 60.5 yards per game in 2013. Last Sunday, Cowboys tight end Jason Witten paced the offense with 12 catches for 135 yards. Graham is one of many weapons in the Saints' arsenal. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis will likely give Graham a variety of looks, but it will be interesting to see if Davis uses a cornerback as part of the plan. Also keep an eye on linebacker Connor Barwin, who was used to frustrate Calvin Johnson at the line of scrimmage when the Eagles played the Lions a month ago.
Head Coach Chip Kelly vs. Saints Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan
There are a lot of interesting matchups between the Eagles offense and the Saints defense, but the chess match between these two stands out the most. Kelly has adapted to the NFL quickly, delivering the most productive offense in franchise history in terms of points and yards, while at the same time setting the team mark for fewest turnovers.
In his first year with the Saints, Ryan transitioned to a 3-4 scheme and used his creative pressure packages to finish fourth in scoring defense, fourth in total yards allowed, second in passing defense and 19th in run defense.The Saints are very good at getting to the quarterback, as they finished fourth in the league in sacks with 49. However, they've struggled to create turnovers with just 19 - the fourth fewest in the league.
The Eagles have had plenty of success in the past against Ryan's defenses in recent years when he was with the Cowboys, but the personnel is certainly different. Kelly has done a very good job of adding wrinkles to his scheme whether by re-introducing concepts that were used earlier in the season or changing a facet to give the defense something different than what was previously shown on film.
Eagles DE Cedric Thornton vs. Saints G Ben Grubbs
Quarterback Drew Brees is so effective because he can get rid of the ball quickly. The Eagles will certainly need linebackers Trent Cole and Connor Barwin to bring pressure from the outside, but the team will need to collapse the pocket as well. Thornton has been outstanding this season as he led the defensive line with 78 tackles, including five tackles for a loss and a sack. The 6-foot-3, 311-pound Grubbs earned his second Pro Bowl selection this year. He was ranked by Pro Football Focus as the ninth-best guard overall and the 10th-best guard in pass protection. Fletcher Cox will also be key to the interior pass rush.
Players To Watch
Saints DE Cameron Jordan
The Saints' first-round pick in 2011, Jordan has broken out in his third season, earning Pro Bowl honors with 12.5 sacks from the 3-4 defensive end position. The California product moves around the Saints defensive line and will provide a stiff test for whichever Eagles offensive lineman draws his assignment. After surrendering significant pressure, especially inside, against the Cowboys last week, expect the likes of Todd Herremans and Evan Mathis to step up their game on Saturday night.
Saints S Roman Harper
The 31-year-old eight-year veteran is back in the Saints starting lineup after the season-ending injury to rookie Kenny Vaccaro. Harper is a two-time Pro Bowler, so he has plenty of big-game experience and defensive awareness, but he's not the same player physically that he once was. ProFootballFocus rates Harper as below average against the pass this year, so the Eagles may have some opportunities to make plays down the field. The Eagles do, after all, have the NFL record for most plays of over 20 yards in one season (99).
Saints RB Darren Sproles
The talk from the Eagles all week has been about Drew Brees' ability to find the open receiver, no matter where he is. As Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis described, all five of Brees' eligible receivers are dangerous on each play, and often times that receiver is coming out of the backfield. Sproles has been the perfect blend of skill and scheme since he joined the Saints and did not slow down in 2013, when he caught 71 passes for 604 yards and two touchdowns. Expect Mychal Kendricks and Connor Barwin to pay special attention to Sproles.
Eagles K Alex Henery
Coming off perhaps the best performance of his young Eagles career, Henery will be tested by the conditions on Saturday night. He's hit a field goal of over 45 yards in each of the Eagles' last three games and is coming off a game filled with touchbacks on kickoffs. But if the conditions are unsavory on Saturday night – early forecasts call for wind chills of near zero degrees and an outside threat of snow – Henery will be under the microscope again. In what is widely predicted to be a close game, every point will matter.