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Wildcard Preview: New Orleans at Philadelphia

by Chase Stuart on January 4, 2014

in Current Events, Playoffs

I have to deal with Chip Kelly?

I have to deal with Chip Kelly?

Kansas City/Indianapolis Preview

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:

Year
Team
Rank
N-1 Rk
Diff
2011Houston Texans23129
2008Baltimore Ravens33027
2007Washington Redskins63226
1998Oakland Raiders43026
1998Miami Dolphins32926
2013New Orleans Saints73225
2007Tennessee Titans32825
2007Tampa Bay Buccaneers22725
2002Carolina Panthers42925
1981San Francisco 49ers32825

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.

Year
Lg
Team
Quarterback
Running Back
Yards
RB rank
2013NFLPHINick FolesLeSean McCoy16071
2012NFLDENPeyton ManningWillis McGahee73126
2011NFLGNBAaron RodgersJames Starks57838
2010NFLNWETom BradyBenJarvus Green-Ellis100816
2009NFLNORDrew BreesPierre Thomas79324
2008NFLSDGPhilip RiversLaDainian Tomlinson111010
2007NFLNWETom BradyLaurence Maroney83523
2006NFLINDPeyton ManningJoseph Addai108118
2005NFLINDPeyton ManningEdgerrin James15065
2004NFLINDPeyton ManningEdgerrin James15484
2003NFLTENSteve McNairEddie George103115
2002NFLNYJChad PenningtonCurtis Martin109415
2001NFLSTLKurt WarnerMarshall Faulk13825
2000NFLSTLKurt WarnerMarshall Faulk13598
1999NFLSTLKurt WarnerMarshall Faulk13815
1998NFLMINRandall CunninghamRobert Smith118711
1997NFLSFOSteve YoungGarrison Hearst101915
1996NFLMIADan MarinoKarim Abdul-Jabbar111611
1995NFLGNBBrett FavreEdgar Bennett106715
1994NFLSFOSteve YoungRicky Watters87715
1993NFLSFOSteve YoungRicky Watters95012
1992NFLSFOSteve YoungRicky Watters101313
1991NFLWASMark RypienEarnest Byner10485
1990NFLKANSteve DeBergBarry Word10157
1989NFLSFOJoe MontanaRoger Craig105410
1988NFLCINBoomer EsiasonIckey Woods10669
1987NFLCLEBernie KosarKevin Mack73512
1986NFLMINTommy KramerDarrin Nelson79316
1985NFLSDGDan FoutsLionel James51638
1984NFLMIADan MarinoWoody Bennett60629
1983NFLMIADan MarinoAndra Franklin74625
1982NFLSDGDan FoutsChuck Muncie56913
1981NFLCINKen AndersonPete Johnson107713
1980NFLPHIRon JaworskiWilbert Montgomery77819
1979NFLDALRoger StaubachTony Dorsett110711
1978NFLDALRoger StaubachTony Dorsett13253
1977NFLDALRoger StaubachTony Dorsett10079
1976NFLBALBert JonesLydell Mitchell12004
1975NFLCINKen AndersonBoobie Clark59429
1974NFLOAKKen StablerMarv Hubbard8657
1973NFLRAMJohn HadlLawrence McCutcheon10974
1972NFLNYJJoe NamathJohn Riggins94413
1971NFLDALRoger StaubachDuane Thomas79311
1970NFLSFOJohn BrodieKen Willard7899
1969AFLCINGreg CookJess Phillips57812
1969NFLDALCraig MortonCalvin Hill9422
1968AFLKANLen DawsonRobert Holmes8662
1968NFLBALEarl MorrallTom Matte66210
1967AFLSDGJohn HadlDickie Post6634
1967NFLWASSonny JurgensenA.D. Whitfield38424
1966NFLGNBBart StarrJim Taylor70510
1966AFLKANLen DawsonMike Garrett8012
1965NFLCHIRudy BukichGale Sayers8672
1965AFLSDGJohn HadlPaul Lowe11211
1964NFLBALJohnny UnitasLenny Moore5849
1964AFLSDGJohn HadlKeith Lincoln6326
1963NFLNYGY.A. TittlePhil King61311
1963AFLSDGTobin RotePaul Lowe10102
1962AFLBOSBabe ParilliRon Burton5488
1962NFLNYGY.A. TittleAlex Webster7439
1961AFLHOUGeorge BlandaBilly Cannon9481
1961NFLPHISonny JurgensenClarence Peaks47119
1960NFLCLEMilt PlumJim Brown12571
1960AFLBOSButch SonginAlan Miller41614
1959NFLNYGCharlie ConerlyFrank Gifford54013
1958NFLPITBobby LayneTom Tracy7144
1957NFLBALJohnny UnitasAlan Ameche49312
1956NFLCHIEd BrownRick Casares11261
1955NFLCLEOtto GrahamFred Morrison8243
1954NFLRAMNorm Van BrocklinTank Younger6103
1953NFLCLEOtto GrahamRay Renfro35216
1952NFLRAMNorm Van BrocklinDan Towler8941
1951NFLRAMBob WaterfieldDan Towler8543
1950NFLRAMNorm Van BrocklinGlenn Davis41617

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.

Year
Lg
Team
Running Back
Quarterback
RANY/A
Rank
2013NFLPHILeSean McCoyNick Foles3.311
2012NFLMINAdrian PetersonChristian Ponder-0.9426
2011NFLJAXMaurice Jones-DrewBlaine Gabbert-2.2233
2010NFLHOUArian FosterMatt Schaub1.017
2009NFLTENChris JohnsonVince Young0.813
2008NFLMINAdrian PetersonGus Frerotte-0.9829
2007NFLSDGLaDainian TomlinsonPhilip Rivers0.1617
2006NFLSDGLaDainian TomlinsonPhilip Rivers1.357
2005NFLSEAShaun AlexanderMatt Hasselbeck1.84
2004NFLNYJCurtis MartinChad Pennington0.7712
2003NFLBALJamal LewisKyle Boller-1.4631
2002NFLMIARicky WilliamsJay Fiedler0.598
2001NFLKANPriest HolmesTrent Green-0.1319
2000NFLINDEdgerrin JamesPeyton Manning2.016
1999NFLINDEdgerrin JamesPeyton Manning1.882
1998NFLDENTerrell DavisJohn Elway1.815
1997NFLDETBarry SandersScott Mitchell0.2314
1996NFLDETBarry SandersScott Mitchell-0.2923
1995NFLDALEmmitt SmithTroy Aikman1.812
1994NFLDETBarry SandersScott Mitchell-1.1226
1993NFLDALEmmitt SmithTroy Aikman2.012
1992NFLDALEmmitt SmithTroy Aikman1.493
1991NFLDALEmmitt SmithTroy Aikman0.6411
1990NFLDETBarry SandersRodney Peete0.4211
1989NFLKANChristian OkoyeSteve DeBerg0.4310
1988NFLINDEric DickersonChris Chandler-0.5923
1987NFLRAMCharles WhiteJim Everett-0.2121
1986NFLRAMEric Dickerson---
1985NFLRAIMarcus AllenMarc Wilson-0.5722
1984NFLRAMEric DickersonJeff Kemp0.768
1983NFLRAMEric DickersonVince Ferragamo0.1614
1982NFLNYJFreeman McNeilRichard Todd1.146
1981NFLNORGeorge RogersArchie Manning-1.4926
1980NFLHOUEarl CampbellKen Stabler-0.8625
1979NFLHOUEarl CampbellDan Pastorini-0.7924
1978NFLHOUEarl CampbellDan Pastorini0.957
1977NFLCHIWalter PaytonBob Avellini0.313
1976NFLBUFO.J. SimpsonGary Marangi-3.0725
1975NFLBUFO.J. SimpsonJoe Ferguson1.853
1974NFLDENOtis ArmstrongCharley Johnson1.647
1973NFLBUFO.J. Simpson---
1972NFLBUFO.J. SimpsonDennis Shaw-1.3723
1971NFLDENFloyd Little---
1970NFLWASLarry BrownSonny Jurgensen1.783
1969NFLCHIGale Sayers---
1969AFLSDGDickie PostJohn Hadl0.944
1968NFLCLELeroy KellyBill Nelsen2.482
1968AFLCINPaul Robinson---
1967AFLBOSJim NanceBabe Parilli-0.465
1967NFLCLELeroy KellyFrank Ryan0.087
1966AFLBOSJim NanceBabe Parilli0.465
1966NFLCHIGale SayersRudy Bukich-1.6412
1965NFLCLEJim BrownFrank Ryan-0.0310
1965AFLSDGPaul LoweJohn Hadl1.51
1964NFLCLEJim BrownFrank Ryan0.486
1964AFLBUFCookie GilchristJack Kemp-0.056
1963NFLCLEJim BrownFrank Ryan1.493
1963AFLOAKClem DanielsTom Flores1.562
1962NFLGNBJim TaylorBart Starr1.313
1962AFLBUFCookie Gilchrist---
1961NFLCLEJim BrownMilt Plum2.263
1961AFLHOUBilly CannonGeorge Blanda4.031
1960NFLCLEJim BrownMilt Plum3.61
1960AFLDTXAbner HaynesCotton Davidson0.73
1959NFLCLEJim BrownMilt Plum1.534
1958NFLCLEJim BrownMilt Plum1.113
1957NFLCLEJim Brown---
1956NFLCHIRick CasaresEd Brown3.191
1955NFLBALAlan AmecheGeorge Shaw-0.5810
1954NFLSFOJoe PerryY.A. Tittle1.473
1953NFLSFOJoe PerryY.A. Tittle2.433
1952NFLRAMDan TowlerNorm Van Brocklin2.241
1951NFLNYGEddie PriceCharlie Conerly-2.1711
1950NFLCLEMarion MotleyOtto Graham0.395

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.

The Weather

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.

Year
Dome Tm
QB
Home Tm
Round
Spread
Boxscore
PF
PA
W/L
Temp
2012MINJoe WebbGNBWild Card+11Boxscore1024L29
2006NORDrew BreesCHIChampionship+3Boxscore1439L27
2004ATLMichael VickPHIChampionship+6Boxscore1027L19
2004MINDaunte CulpepperGNBWild Card+6Boxscore3117W23
2004INDPeyton ManningNWEDivision+1Boxscore320L27
2004MINDaunte CulpepperPHIDivision+8Boxscore1427L29
2003INDPeyton ManningNWEChampionship+3.5Boxscore1424L31
2002ATLMichael VickGNBWild Card+6.5Boxscore277W20
2002ATLMichael VickPHIDivision+7.5Boxscore620L31
2002INDPeyton ManningNYJWild Card+6Boxscore041L34
1995INDJim HarbaughKANDivision+8Boxscore107W0
1995DETScott MitchellPHIWild Card-3Boxscore3758L30
1995ATLJeff GeorgeGNBWild Card+9.5Boxscore2037L30
1994DETDave KriegGNBWild Card+4.5Boxscore1216L32
1993MINJim McMahonNYGWild Card+6.5Boxscore1017L20
1992HOUWarren MoonBUFWild Card+2Boxscore3841L34
1991HOUWarren MoonDENDivision+3.5Boxscore2426L30
1990NORSteve WalshCHIWild Card+6.5Boxscore616L21
1988HOUWarren MoonBUFDivision+3.5Boxscore1017L28
1988SEADave KriegCINDivision+6.5Boxscore1321L32
1987INDJack TrudeauCLEDivision+8Boxscore2138L16
1987HOUWarren MoonDENDivision+10Boxscore1034L28
1987MINWade WilsonWASChampionship+3Boxscore1017L35
1979HOUDan PastoriniPITChampionship+9.5Boxscore1327L18
1978HOUDan PastoriniPITChampionship+7Boxscore534L25

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

  1. Who, while needing to be replaced, also landed on IR. []

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Curt Durt January 4, 2014 at 12:49 am

Is anyone concerned that the Cowboys have laid out a blueprint for stopping the Eagles? Set the edges- Defend the bubble screens and get Foles on the run.

Reply

Chase Stuart January 4, 2014 at 10:18 am

I’m not coo concerned with that because the Eagles can still run the ball and beat teams deep. The Cowboys made Foles look mortal, sure, but it’s not like the other teams in the league didn’t try that philosophy. I can’t quite explain why Dallas was so successful, but I expect the good Eagles offense to show up tonight.

Reply

Ty January 4, 2014 at 4:16 pm

I know he isn’t good anymore, but Monte Kiffin has expierence against Chip Kelly, when USC and Oregon faced each other. It could be that when you see something enough times, you are able to game plan against it easier (similar to how hitters get better against pitchers after they see them the first time).

Reply

Sunrise089 January 4, 2014 at 4:12 am

Article says Saints improved to a top-5 scoring defense, but the chart immediately below shows them 7th. Am I missing something?

Reply

Chase Stuart January 4, 2014 at 10:04 am

Thanks for catching that. I was looking at NY/A allowed, not points allowed when I made the chart, but I guess I forgot that when I got to the whole write-up thing.

As a result, I went back and checked the jump in points allowed, and lo and behold, that’s a record!

Reply

Sunrise089 January 4, 2014 at 11:54 am

Happy to help. After all you did a pseudo-PFR trivia podcast with Jason (and didn’t mention it here?!). Do another one and add Doug and I’ll even tell you about another typo I spotted ;)

Reply

Chase Stuart January 4, 2014 at 12:02 pm

With so many posts here this week, I’m trying to space ‘em out! I’ll post a link to the JKL podcast early next week. A Doug podcast is in the works, although we’ve been saying that for awhile.

Reply

Neer Shah January 4, 2014 at 11:26 am

7th is the defence in terms of yardage, I’m guessing then, whereas they’re top-5 in terms of scoring D.

Reply

Chase Stuart January 4, 2014 at 10:13 pm

Correct.

Reply

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