New Orleans Saints (11-5) (+2.5) at Philadelphia Eagles (10-6), Saturday 8:10 PM ET
We’re fully immune to the Saints offense at this point. Drew Brees just threw for for 5,162 yards and 39 touchdowns and it didn’t even register on most radars. One reason for that: both of those numbers represent three-year lows for the Saints star. Jimmy Graham shook off early-season leg injuries to lead the league with 16 touchdowns, and rookie Kenny Stills led the NFL in yards per target. Both Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles topped 70 receptions — two of just five running backs this year to do so — and I didn’t even know that until five seconds ago. Pinball numbers are the expectation when dealing with the Saints offense.
But the real change is on defense, as the team just finished one of the most remarkable turnarounds in NFL history. Did you know that the Saints finished fourth in points allowed this year? That’s only the fourth time New Orleans has ranked in the top five in that statistic in franchise history, with the other three occurrences all coming during the Dome Patrol era. What makes New Orleans’ success even more remarkable is that the team ranked last in points allowed in 2012. New Orleans is the first team in NFL history to jump 27 spots in the points allowed rankings. Prior to this year, the 2011 Houston Texans (4th after ranking 29th) and 1993 New York Giants (1st after ranking 26th) had been the most improved defenses with 25-slot jumps. Now the Saints probably aren’t as good as their points allowed rank would imply (Football Outsiders has them 9th, Advanced NFL Stats ranks the unit 10th), but unparalleled feats remain astounding.
The main reason for the team’s improvement is the pass defense. The Saints ranked last in Net Yards per Attempt allowed last year, but 7th this season, another remarkable jump. In fact, only 10 teams have ever made a jump of 25 spots in the NY/A allowed rankings:
Most of the teams with big turnarounds brought in a new defensive coach or hit a home run in the draft (or both). The 2011 Texans added J.J. Watt and Wade Phillips, while the 2007 Ravens were an odd blip on the radar (in both 2006 and 2008, the star-studded Ravens pass D ranked in the top three, with Rex Ryan coaching them all three years). The 1998 Raiders drafted Charles Woodson, the 2002 Panthers selected Julius Peppers and added Jack Del Rio, and the ’81 49ers grabbed Ronnie Lott. The 2013 Saints drafted Kenny Vaccaro and brought in Rex’s brother, Rob.
The Saints made a lot of changes, beginning with a move from the 4-3 to Ryan’s preferred 3-4 system. And Ryan got much more out of the Saints defensive linemen than Steve Spagnuolo ever could. Cameron Jordan had been outstanding and deserved his Pro Bowl nod; he was failing to live up to his first round status as a 4-3 defensive end, but he has fit Ryan’s scheme perfectly. And, in a bit of an unusual twist, he’s been a much more effective pass rusher at the position, too. In addition to jumping from 8 to 12.5 sacks,Pro Football Focus has Jordan jumping from 5 quarterback hits and 32 hurries last year to 13 hits and 50 hurries in 2013. Will Smith — who was going to move from DE to OLB as part of the system change — was a constant underachiever, and he’s missed the 2013 season with a knee injury. He’s been replaced at DE with Akiem Hicks, who played well in part-time duty in 2012 and has succeeded as a starter this year. When the Saints traded up to draft John Jenkins, I said that New Orleans significantly overpaid to move up, “but if you’re going to take a bloodbath on the trade chart, you better be trading up for a player who 1) has dropped 20-30 picks or more, 2) fills a huge need on your roster, and 3) plays an impact position. It’s important not to be a slave to the chart, and this is one of those times I approve giving up the points.” Jenkins was a monster at Georgia and played well as a rookie; he rotates with Brodrick Bunkley to help clog the middle of the field. If there’s an unsung unit on the Saints, it’s the defensive line.
New Orleans had linebacker issues in 2012, and the situation isn’t much better in 2013. Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne remain below-average players, but Junior Galette has been one of the keys to the defense. Galette was solid as a pure pass rushing specialist in 2012, but he’s been an impact player as a starter this year. He was slated as a backup behind Smith and ex-Cowboy Victor Butler, but at 25-years-old, he should turn into a long-term starter for the Saints. Parys Haralson is the other “starter” at outside linebacker, but in Ryan’s defense, he’s usually off the field in favor of a fifth defensive back.
The Saints made two big changes in the secondary, replacing Patrick Robinson1 with Keenan Lewis and Roman Harper with Vaccaro at strong safety. Those two upgrades, along with the breakout years from Jordan, Hicks, and Galette, have enabled Ryan’s schemes to completely revamp the defense. But the real concern is how the secondary (which was already without starting cornerback Jabari Greer) functions without Vaccaro, who is done for the year with a broken ankle.
Vaccaro’s injury puts Harper back into the starting lineup and makes safety Rafael Bush the fifth defensive back. It also puts more of a spotlight on inconsistent free safety Malcolm Jenkins. Against the Bucs, the Saints were able to look just fine without Vaccaro, but it could be a very different story against a team like Philadelphia. Well, “just fine” may be pushing it. It’s probably unfair to rake a defender over the coals for his performance on a trick play, but let’s just say that Jenkins (playing as the single-high safety) does not do a very good job covering the pass on the Bucs flea-flicker.
Even with Vacarro, the strength of the defense was up front. New Orleans ranked 4th in both sacks and sack rate in 2013. The problem for the Saints is that the Eagles have one of the best offensive lines in the league. It sounds simple to say, but if Philadelphia neutralizes Jordan, Hicks, and Galette, then the Eagles will light up the scoreboard.
Chip Kelly’s offense is fascinating to watch, but he does have the benefit of some extremely athletic offensive lineman. Fourth overall pick Lane Johnson is probably the worst member of the group right now, but he is one of the most athletic offensive lineman in the NFL. He’s 6’6, 300 pounds and ran a 4.72 40-yard dash at the combine. Johnson is stuck at right tackle because the Eagles have a franchise left tackle in Jason Peters, who was named a first-team All-Pro by the Associated Press in 2013. It will be interesting to see how often Ryan lines Jordan up at left end to go against Johnson. In the middle, Evan Mathis (another 1st-team All-Pro), Jason Kelce (who is one of just five centers since 1999 to run the 40-yard dash in under 40 seconds), and Todd Herremans are outstanding run-blockers, and are more than capable in the passing game, too. Obviously the addition of Kelly has been the driving force of the Philadelphia turnaround, but the play of the offensive line is a close second. Philadelphia was fortunate to get 80 starts out of this group in 2013, and that’s a big reason the Eagles are in the playoffs (those five players combined for just 26 games for the 2012 Eagles).
How good has the offensive line been? Well you probably already know that LeSean McCoy led the NFL in rushing and that Nick Foles led the league in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt. That hasn’t happened in the NFL since the days of Jim Brown and Milt Plum. The table below lists the leader in ANY/A for each season since 1950. The three right columns display the leading running back on that team, how many rushing yards he gained, and where that ranked that season.
For all the talk about how much a great passing game helps out a running game, and vice versa, the stats rarely seem to bear that out. Over the previous 20 years, the leading rusher on the team with the number one passer ranked, on average, 14th-15th in rushing yards. Incredibly, no post-merger running back finished in the top two in rushing, and Tony Dorsett (with Roger Staubach) was the only player to rank in the top three since.
What if we look at things from the other angle? McCoy led the NFL in rushing; how does the top quarterback for that team usually fare in ANY/A? The table below shows the Relative ANY/A (which is a quarterback’s ANY/A average (or AY/A average prior to 1969) minus the league average ANY/A) of the quarterback with the most pass attempts on the team that sported the league’s top rusher. I’ve also listed where that quarterback ranked in ANY/A that season among qualifying passers. If no quarterback on the team threw enough passes to qualify, I’ve left the passer line blank.
Had you realized that Christian Ponder, Blaine Gabbert, Matt Schaub, Vince Young, and Gus Frerotte were the last five quarterbacks to “keep defenses honest” for the league’s leading rusher? For the 20-year period prior to 2013, the quarterback on the team with the top running back had an average ANY/A rank of 14.3 and an average Relative ANY/A of 0.45. In other words, the Eagles success this year is pretty remarkable.
No, I can’t write about the Saints without discussing the weather. By NFL history standards, the dome is still a modern invention. The first dome team to play a road playoff game was the Oilers in Oakland in 1969, and Houston didn’t play another road playoff game until 1978. The first non-Houston dome teams to play a road playoff game were the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings in 1981.
As a result, there have only been 25 playoff games where a dome team played in sub-35 degree weather. And in those games, dome teams have a horrific 3-22 record. You wouldn’t expect a 50/50 split — after all, the average dome team was a 5.7-point underdog entering these games. But based on the points spread, the dome teams should have won 8.5, and not 3 of those games, so perhaps there’s something to this effect.
Here’s how to read the table below. In 2012, the Vikings, quarterbacked by Joe Webb, played at Green Bay in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. The Vikings were 11-point underdogs, and lost 24-10. The temperature was 29 degrees.
It’s worth pointing out that of the 8 coldest games on the list, the dome team won three times. Frankly, I’m not quite sure what to make of this fact. But there are more than enough reasons to pick the Eagles regardless.
Prediction: Philadelphia 32, New Orleans 24
- Who, while needing to be replaced, also landed on IR. [↩]