Eagles-Saints: A closer look at Sunday's matchup in New Orleans

On paper, this game looks like a mismatch against a Saints team that has won 8 in a row and averages 36 points per game

Clearly this hasn’t been the season that the Eagles envisioned.

Sitting at 4-5, it doesn’t figure to get much better on Sunday when they travel to New Orleans to take on a red-hot Saints team that has won eight in a row, including handing the Los Angeles Rams their first loss of the year two weeks ago.

“It’ll be interesting how they play us because they are very multiple defensively with their coverages and looks, so we know we have a good test on the road but we’re excited for it,” said quarterback Carson Wentz.

The Eagles have been unable to sustain much momentum all season long, and have yet to win two games in a row.

The reasons are plentiful.

Perhaps the biggest flaw on defense is the inability to force turnovers. It has just four interceptions this year, with their last one coming on Oct. 11 against New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning.

Then there is the shoddy tackling that was on display in losing to the Dallas Cowboys 27-20 on Sunday night.

Fourth quarters haven’t been good to the Eagles, either. They are being outscored 63-57 over the final 15 minutes, and allowed the Cowboys to score 14 points on them in fourth quarter and, two weeks prior, gave up 21 in the fourth in losing 21-17 to the Carolina Panthers.

Offensively, the Eagles have had difficulty scoring early in games.

That could be a death sentence against the Saints, who have scored 121 points in the second quarter alone and are outscoring opponents 175-118 in the first half.

The Eagles have scored just 21 points in the first quarter.

“Obviously we realize they, as of late, have gotten up on teams early,” said Wentz. “We have a ton of confidence in our defense but that’s a heck of an offense over there. We don’t try to look too much into that because at the end of the day we have high expectations and standards on the offensive side of the ball. We realize we have some things we’ve got to clean up. … We realize we may have to score but again we have a lot of confidence in our defense and we’re excited to see how we match up.”

SERIES HISTORY: 27th regular-season meeting. Eagles lead the series, 16-11.

PREDICTION: SAINTS 38, EAGLES 33

NOTES, QUOTES:

Tight end Zach Ertz has had four games with more than 100 yards receiving this season. The Eagles have lost all four. On a team that prides itself on having plenty of weapons, does the ball need to be spread around more?

“I think you can get too dialed in on anybody within a game but at the end of the day, are we having success or not is kind of how you measure that,” said Wentz. “And what is the matchup presenting itself? Everyone knows Zach knows his abilities out there and knows he’s a tough cover for a corner or a safety or whoever they put on him. So you know, we trust him to make plays and get open and he’s done a great job of that.”

Saints quarterback Drew Brees is having a season for the ages, completing 77.3 percent of his passes with 21 touchdowns to one interception while being sacked just nine times because he gets the ball out of his hand so quickly.

“I looked at his interception reel,” said defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. “That was one. Didn't take us long to get through the sack and interception reel. His incompletions, didn't take us long to get through those. I mean, he's playing at an insane level right now. It's sort of a trend of where the NFL is.

“When I was a kid, if a quarterback completed 50 percent of his passes, that was considered good. If he had as many touchdown passes as interceptions, it was considered playing pretty good quarterback. Then it started becoming, you need to throw twice as many touchdowns as interceptions. Then you need to complete 60 percent of your passes.

“Now pretty much everybody is like near that 70 percent. He's close to 80. He's 77 point something. How about 21-1 touchdown interception? He's made those things the new standards.”

Alshon Jeffery has 14 receptions for 296 yards (148 per game) and two in two career meetings against the Saints. He has five TD catches in last five road games.

BY THE NUMBERS: 18. That was the number of offensive snaps receiver Golden Tate got in his Eagles debut on Sunday night. The number represents just 29 percent of the snaps. Pederson said the team didn’t want to overburden Tate, even though he appears to be just an end-of-season rental because he scheduled to be a highly sought-after free agent following the season.

The limited number of snaps is in stark contrast to the two teams who acquired high-level receiver talent at the trade deadline. The Cowboys played Amari Cooper on 85 percent of their offensive snaps in his first game with the team against the Tennessee Titans and the Houston Texans played Demaryius Thomas on 79 percent of their offensive snaps against the Denver Broncos.

“We brought him here to play him a lot,” said offensive coordinator Mike Groh. “You know how it is in the first week where he's just building the foundation, and we had a healthy package of plays. But he was ready to run. He and the coaches worked really hard to prepare, to be ready to go in there. Like Coach (Pederson) mentioned, some of that may have been taken away a little bit when we got in some of the no-huddle stuff that we do and maybe limited his play count a little bit. But we had a healthy package of plays for him, and we'll continue to build on that.”

PERSONNEL PLAYER NOTES:

Cornerback Ronald Darby tore an ACL on Sunday night and is gone for the season after being placed on Injured Reserve on Saturday. The Eagles promoted De’Vante Bausby from the practice squad.

Cornerback Jalen Mills will miss his second straight game with a foot injury. That means Rasul Douglas is line for his second straight start. Cornerback Sidney Jones, who has missed the last three games with a hamstring injury, will play, and do so likely on the outside opposite Douglas.

Tight end Richard Rodgers was activated from IR and should see some snaps. To make room for him on the 53-man roster, the team put tight end Joshua Perkins (knee) on IR.

Receiver Mike Wallace is eligible to come off of IR next week. Wallace suffered a fractured fibula in Week Two, but is believed to making progress toward a return this year.

Defensive tackle Tim Jernigan had hoped to play on Sunday, but the Eagles did not make a move to add him to the roster. The team has another week to decide if Jernigan can play this season, otherwise he will be lost for the remainder of the year.

Right tackle Lane Johnson was a gameday decision against the Cowboys and the decision was he could not play. Johnson, though, was close to playing and should line up against the Saints this week, strained MCL and all.

Running back Darren Sproles will miss his ninth straight game since injuring a hamstring in the season opener.

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Michael Bennett. The Eagles defensive end had his first multi-sack game since the team traded for him from Seattle in the offseason. He leads the team in sacks with 5.5 and all of them have come in five of the last six games. Sacking Brees, though, is no easy task. Still, Bennett will need to lead a charge the defensive line’s charge to pressure the veteran quarterback in order to have any kind of chance to win.

GAME PLAN:

The Eagles may as well forget about slowing the Saints’ offense. Nobody has done it, and they average more than 36 points per game. The Eagles, on the hand, only average 22.

“We feel like we want to score a touchdown every time we have the ball,” said Groh. “We're not trying to take any series off. Obviously, we know they're playing at a high level, and we understand the challenge in front of us. But our goal each and every time we run out there is to score a touchdown.”

Maybe the running game could help the Eagles, except that is been mostly nonexistent this year. The Eagles dialed up just 15 running plays against the Cowboys. Their run game is ranked just 22nd overall in the NFL.

The Eagles, though, may be able to contain the Saints offense by controlling the clock. The Eagles lead the league in time of possession, so maybe that will be one way to prevent New Orleans from reaching or topping their average.

For every positive, though, there is a negative with the Eagles. The big one this week is that the Eagles’ secondary is banged up and will likely be without their top two cornerbacks in Ronald Darby (out for season with torn ACL) and Jalen Mills (foot injury), this could get out of hand early, unless…the Eagles can figure out how to match the Saints point for point to make this game relevant in the fourth quarter.

“We’d love to go out on offense and put up 50 every week but that’s the mentality we’re going to take in there no matter who we’re playing,” said Wentz. “So we’ll see how that all plays out.”

Defensively, the Eagles will need to keep the Saints in check on first down. New Orleans averaged 7.03 yards on first down, which ranks third in the league behind the Chargers (7.56) and Rams (7.35).

QUOTES TO NOTE:

“They’re the hottest team in the NFL right now,” said Douglas. “Their offense is really good. I haven’t seen anybody stop them yet and they have a great quarterback in Brees who can make all the throws. It’s going to be a big challenge so we have to be locked in and go down there ready to play.”

Asked what he sees that shows his team is still engaged in a season that has gone south, head coach Doug Pederson said: “I see signs of guys are in the building on time. I see how they practice. I see how they train. I see how we dialog back and forth. All the things we have been able to do over this two-and-a half-year period. Those are all things that keep us positive and keep us motivated. They understand where they are and (that we've) dug ourselves a hole. It's a matter of climbing out, and we're doing it one game at a time.”

MATCHUPS TO WATCH – Eagles secondary against Saints receiver Michael Thomas. Due to various injuries, the Eagles’ secondary has been a revolving door, and now must try somehow put the clamps on one of the top receivers in the game. Thomas leads the league catches (78) and is second in receiving yardage (950). Schwartz said that, despite the heavy rotation, his scheme has not changed and the defensive playbook is still wide open.

“We've got some guys hurt, we've got some guys that are working hard to get back,” said Schwartz. “We've got some young players that need to fill in and make their way in the league. We've got some guys that aren't coming back, obviously. Darby is not going to come back, Rodney McLeod's not going to come back. The other guys will all have a chance to get back. But our job as players and coaches is work to find a formula that works for the guys that we have. In my mind, that's the essence of coaching: Take what you have and try to figure it out. It might look different than when we were at 100 percent strength.”

Saints rushing offense against Eagles run defense. The Eagles were shredded on the ground by Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott, allowing him to run for 151 yards and a touchdown on Sunday night, prompting Schwartz to say: “I mean, all due respect, [Cowboys RB] Ezekiel Elliott's a great running back, but we shouldn’t give up rushing yards like that.” Now comes Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, and Taysom Hill. They have the Saints leading the league in rushing scores with 17, averaging 126 yards rushing per game, which is eighth best in the league, and are coming off a game against the Bengals where they hammered out 244 yards on the ground.

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