Fantasy Watch: LeSean McCoy (PHI) and Jimmy Graham (NO)
It is fair to say that the Eagles will have a huge mismatch in the run game. The Saints are porous against the run, ranked 28th in yards per carry allowed (4.6), starting with their front three; disregard defensive end Cameron Jordan, who made the Pro Bowl this season. He is a pass rusher, not a stout run defender. Former Eagles defensive tackle Broderick Bunkley is not a problem either, nor is other defensive end Akiem Hicks. In fact, besides middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, not one of the Saints front seven guys is very good against the run.
Unfortunately for them, the Eagles are a great run blocking team featuring athletic offensive linemen and a scheme that takes advantage of that. Throw in LeSean McCoy, arguably the league’s best running back, and you have a dominating rushing attack that the Saints cannot handle. While their secondary is much improved under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and they do know how to get pressure on the quarterback, the zone-read will help neutralize their ends and outside linebackers in the run game and provide McCoy with the opportunity for yet another big game. Start him as your RB1 in any playoff fantasy league.
Projected stats for McCoy: 26 carries, 143 yards, 1 touchdown, 23 receiving yards (22.6 points)
Head Coach Sean Payton and Quarterback Drew Brees are the best HC-QB tandem in the NFL at finding mismatches in the passing game, and that’s what they will do with All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham. He has been superhuman this year, leading all tight ends with 86 receptions, 1215 yards, and 16 touchdowns. Expect his strong production to continue on Saturday against the Eagles.
Now, this does not mean he will eat Philadelphia alive. While the Birds have been bad this season against bigger tight ends (see: Jason Witten), they are planning on changing up the strategy this week to deal with Graham. Nickel corner Brandon Boykin, who leads the team with 6 interceptions, will be moving to the outside primarily to cover the Saints’ smaller wide receivers. Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams, the two starting outside corners who are both bigger than Boykin and faster than any of the team’s linebackers, will be splitting time on Graham. This will help slow him down, a bit, but still start him with confidence.
Projected stats for Graham: 8 receptions, 119 yards, touchdown (17.9 points)
Key Matchup: Sproles (Screen Game) vs Mychal Kendricks
The New Orleans Saints do not have a good running attack, at least in the traditional sense. They were 25th in the NFL, averaging just 92 yards per game. By contrast, LeSean McCoy averaged over 100 yards per game by himself. They also averaged only 3.8 yards per game, meaning they will have a tough time against the Eagles’ 4th-ranked run defense (in terms of yards per carry).
What the Saints do love to do, however, is run the screen game and feature their running backs in the passing game to offset the lack of a consistent rushing attack. It’s also a great way to make up for bad pass protection; even if teams are penetrating through the line, you can find a running back in open space behind the linemen and spring him for a big play. That is exactly what the Saints do with running backs Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles—those two are first and third among running backs in receptions respectively. In fact, Sproles and Thomas combined catch 33% of Brees’ completions. That is the highest of any team in the NFL.
The success of the Saints screen game will be important in deciding the outcome of the game. 2012 2nd-round pick Mychal Kendricks, the team’s strong inside linebacker, will be tasked with shutting down Sproles and Thomas out of the backfield most of the game. He has been playing at an extremely high level over his past eight games, with 62 tackles, 4.0 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoveries, and two interceptions in that span. The key for any linebacker against a screen pass is being able to shed blocks quickly and bring down the ballcarrier in the open field. Kendricks has done both very well this season.
He will, however, have a very tough task in trying to defend one of the shiftiest backs in the NFL in Sproles (Thomas has been ruled out of the game with a chest injury). If the Saints cannot execute the screen game efficiently, they will have a tough time being able to keep the Eagles front seven honest and Billy Davis’ blitzes could hit home more often than not. If Kendricks and the Eagles linebacking corps cannot stop them, however, Davis’ unit will be on their heels the entire game long and get burned by an All-Pro and Super Bowl champion, Drew Brees.
X-Factor: Pass Rush (PHI) and Taking Away the Deep Ball (NO)
PHI: The Eagles secondary has come a long way since September, with the emergence of guys like Boykin, Fletcher, and Williams and the improved play of safeties Nate Allen and Earl Wolff, but they still are not an elite unite. That was evident in spurts against Dallas, when Kyle Orton managed to pick them apart for first down after first down on a couple of series last Sunday, and will be even more evident against superstar Drew Brees unless the Eagles defensive line can generate a lot more pressure than they did last week against the Cowboys.
Now, the Saints offensive line is not great at pass protecting. Do not get fooled by “Pro Bowl” accolades for Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs; both got in on reputation, and neither played at the level Eagles guard Evan Mathis did this season. Brees is the master of the three-step drop, which has downplayed their struggles statistically, but their offensive line is not great. That said, Trent Cole, Cedric Thornton, Bennie Logan, and Fletcher Cox will have to bring their A+ games on Saturday night. They will need to create penetration on nearly every play, disrupting Brees’ rhythm and perhaps forcing a batted pass or throw away once in a while to help out their secondary. Yes, Brees isn’t his usual superstar self on the road, but he will still have a field day against the Eagles if they cannot generate enough pressure.
NO: The Saints also do not have the greatest secondary, but one thing they do well is take away the deep ball, similar to the Eagles. They do allow the opposing team to complete passes, especially short, but rarely get beat deep. Their safeties, especially rookie Kenny Vaccaro and veteran Malcolm Jenkins, have been strong against the pass this year. Unforunately, Vaccaro is on IR and Roman Harper, who has been burned in the pass game in the playoffs before, will start at safety. The Saints are one of three teams in the NFL that has not allowed a pass of more than 60 yards to be completed this season.
Chip Kelly has done a better job of using his tight ends over the middle in the past few weeks and mixing in shorter passes to DeSean Jackson, but when you look past pounding the rock with LeSean McCoy, the bread-and-butter of this Eagles offense is still the vertical passing game. Riley Cooper and Jackson have been two of the league’s most dangerous deep threats, averaging 17.8 and 16.2 yards per reception respectively. The key for the Saints will be preventing the big play and not allowing the Eagles to score in spurts and take control of the game.
Prediction: Eagles 27, Saints 23
Drew Brees and Sean Payton is one heck of a HC-QB tandem, but then again so is the duo of Chip Kelly and Nick Foles. While I expect New Orleans to rack up yards through the air, especially to Graham, the Eagles defense will continue to be stout in the red zone and force turnovers when necessary. I believe Nick Foles will struggle a bit against Rob Ryan’s blitz packages, but the Eagles will lean on Shady to move the ball up and down the field and Foles will make enough plays to escape Lincoln Financial Field with a win.