All week they’ve looked at the New Orleans Saints offense and its complexities, its variety, and its 2018 excellence. Make no mistake, the Saints have a potent attack and when they play in the friendly confines of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, they’re at their best, averaging 37 points per game (not including the final regular-season game, when they rested most of their starters). The Eagles know it firsthand, surrendering 48 points in the November 18 loss.
So, the broader question for the Eagles' defense for Sunday is this: How can the Eagles get off the field in this NFC Divisional Playoff game?
“We have to be better on third down, which means we have to do a good job on first and second downs,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “That’s going to be a huge key for us – getting off the field on third downs and then limiting their big plays. They’ve got a diverse offense and Drew (Brees, quarterback) can obviously dissect any defense and dictate. We have to find a way to disrupt him, take him out of his comfort zone. We know what kind of challenge this is going to be, but I feel like we’re ready to play our game. That didn’t happen last time.”
No, it didn’t. New Orleans scored on eight of its first nine possessions and Brees threw for 363 yards and four touchdowns as the Saints rang up 546 total net yards.
“It was just one of those days when everything they did worked and nothing we did worked,” linebacker Nigel Bradham said. “Now, we’re in a different spot. We had a defense then that was limited. We ran a lot of ‘Man’ and ‘Cover 2’ in coverage just because we had some new guys and not everybody was in sync with the scheme. I feel like now we’re exploring more of the scheme because we know it better and we’re more comfortable. We understand our defense more and we can play that way.
“Our confidence level is high. We’re playing some of our best ball at the right time. That’s important. That’s what this tournament is all about – playing your best football at this time, peaking when you need to peak.”
New Orleans is a handful. Brees is the driver, a future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback who everyone in the league respects. The Eagles know that he’s not going to get flustered. They know that he’s hard to touch – he’s been sacked only 17 times in the 15 games he has played this season. Brees hasn’t played at quite the level the last few weeks that he reached in the game against the Eagles – but he’s rested, he’s healthy, and the Saints are at home. And when they play in that dome, they have a different pace and a higher level of energy.
"The dome an advantage with the noise, with the energy, just the atmosphere that brings," running back Alvin Kamara said earlier in the season. "I think we've just got a little bit extra confidence when we play at home."
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz relies on his front four to generate pressure on the quarterback and then he’ll mix his coverages on the back end. The Eagles led the league in defensive red zone touchdown percentage during the regular season, but in the first meeting against New Orleans the Saints scored touchdowns on four of five trips inside the Philadelphia 20-yard line. The defense didn’t sack Brees and barely touched him.
That was then, though, and this is now. And the Eagles are confident the outcome is going to be different on Sunday.
“You have to be patient against Drew, because you know he’s crafty and he doesn’t get sacked very much,” defensive end Brandon Graham said. “We have to just keep coming. Don’t get frustrated as a D-line because sometimes you can feel like you’re not part of the game because of how fast he gets the ball out. We have to make sure that we tackle, take people to the ground, and stop the run.”
This is one of the dominant storylines of the week, and it’s not going to change on Sunday. The Eagles' defense faces an enormous task in New Orleans. The Saints do it all – they gash defenses in a variety of ways.
How do the Eagles get off the field?
“We have the belief that we have a great plan and we have to go out and execute it,” Bradham said. “Against a team like that, you have to take advantage of every mistake they make. You have to take it to them. That’s our goal on Sunday. We have to set the pace. We have to dictate to them.”