Eagles vs. Saints: 4 stats that matter

Eagles vs. Saints: 4 stats that matter

Drew Brees: home vs. away

It’s been such an amazing year for quarterbacks in the NFL that Drew Brees is almost flying under the radar. 2013 was the fourth time the Super Bowl XLIV MVP threw for over 5,000 yards in a season, but the first it wasn’t good enough to lead the league. In fact, this was the first year since Brees joined the New Orleans Saints in ’06 that he wasn’t was No. 1 in either pass attempts, completions, completion percentage, yards, touchdowns or passer rating.

The two-time Offensive Player of the Year remains one of the most prolific signal-callers in the league though, finishing no lower than sixth in any of those categories. Now, just imagine the kind of numbers he would’ve put up had the 13-year veteran played on his home turf every week.

Brees has always been better within the confines of the Superdome, but this year the splits took a turn for the worse. I mean, they are ugly. His passer rating drops by over 40 full points on the road.

Brees is nearly flawless in his own building. This year, he completed 73.6 percent of his passes for 2,835 yards, 9.1 yards per attempt, and an incredible 27-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio at home—good for a 126.3 rating.

When the Saints were the away team, Brees’ numbers fell to 64.0 completion percentage, 2,327 yards, 6.4 yards per attempt, and 12-9 TD:INT ratio—mustering a very ordinary 84.8 efficiency score.

Not surprisingly, New Orleans was unbeaten at home this year, and below .500 (3-5) on the road. Nobody is exactly sure why the discrepancy is so great though. Brees makes a lot of changes at the line of scrimmage, so noise could certainly be a factor. The offense undoubtedly plays much faster on turf too, and dome teams generally perform better indoors than out, especially when the elements have an impact.

And, of course, it’s simply more difficult to win on the road. The 12 teams that reached the playoffs this year had a combined record of 75-20-1 at home.

All of which spells good news for the Philadelphia Eagles at the Linc on Saturday night. The Birds are riding a four-game home winning streak, whereas the Brees is 0-4 all-time at outdoor venues during the playoffs. You always have to worry that something so seemingly intangible as home-away splits will hold up for a great player like Brees, but it’s been an ongoing problem for New Orleans all season.

Jimmy Graham: the X-factor

While Brees is still the first name that comes to mind when the Saints come up, Jimmy Graham has quickly become one of the most dominant players in the league as well and may soon supplant him. With New England’s Rob Gronkowski battling injuries all season, Graham easily led all tight ends this season with 86 receptions and 1,215 yards, while his 16 touchdown receptions was No. 1 in the entire NFL.

Graham is putting up wide receiver numbers, which is essentially what he is. At 6’7”, 265 pounds with 4.5 speed and 38.5-inch vert, the former University of Miami basketball player has the power and quickness to run through or past defenders, but the size and athletic ability to catch passes in places puny mortals can’t reach. As if matching up on Graham wasn’t impossible enough, the Saints line him up all over the formation—split wide, in the slot, or as a regular ol’ inline tight end.

The Eagles don’t have any one player who matches up with Graham perfectly, but then nobody does. It takes a village to defend against that kind of versatility and pure talent. Drawing up the right game plan to contain this monster is essential though.

This will probably come as no surprise, but these days, the Saints go as Graham does. The difference in the 2010 third-round pick’s numbers when New Orleans wins as opposed to when they lose is staggering. Graham averaged 6.1 receptions and 87.2 yards per game with 12 touchdowns in the club’s 11 victories compared to just 3.8 catches, 51.2 yards and four touchdowns in five losses.

The numbers certainly suggest he is vital to the outcome, which even though it seemed kind of obvious, now we know. Then again, Graham is still averaging roughly a touchdown per game no matter what, so if he gets into the end zone once, that’s not necessarily the end of the world. If the Eagles are going to have any chance at stopping the Saints offense, what they need to limit the number of balls Graham gets in the open field and the damage he does after the catch.

Saints Run Defense

As long as Brees keeps doing his thing, the Saints are always going to be known for their offense. This season, they just happen to have a defense, too.

Hired to replace Steve Spagnuolo in the offseason, well-traveled defensive coordinator Rob Ryan managed to transform the league’s 32nd-ranked defense into a top-five unit in one short year. New Orleans finished 2013 fourth in total defense and points allowed, second against the pass. The improvement on the back end starts with pressure up front though, as the Saints finished fourth with 49 sacks.

There’s no question the unit is vastly improved as a whole, but Ryan couldn’t cover up all their weaknesses in one season. New Orleans’s defense is vulnerable on the ground, coming in 19th in rushing yards allowed—and to be honest, that figure probably could've been a lot worse.

The nice thing about having Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham and a slew of other offensive weapons is that from time-to-time the offense builds up a big enough lead, it forces opponents to abandon the run. The Saints may have only surrendered the 19th-most yards, but they only faced 24.2 attempts per game, which was 27th. Yards per attempt indicate they’re worse off than their ranking.

In actuality, only three teams allowed higher than New Orleans’ 4.6 yards per carry or more gains of 20 yards this season. Simply put, the Saints can be gashed in the running game, which could spell trouble against the Eagles and the league’s No. 1-ranked rushing offense.

LeSean McCoy in the Fourth Quarter

The Saints won’t be able to stop Philadelphia’s running game, that much is almost certain. The key will be having access to LeSean McCoy for all 60 minutes.

The Eagles can’t allow Drew Brees to get ahead by too much, or that will force Chip Kelly to go away from the run while they try to mount a comeback or just keep pace. Obviously, it’s New Orleans’ biggest weakness, and you would like them to be able to take advantage, but it’s more than that. McCoy actually gets better as the game wears on.

Shady’s numbers improve measurably by quarter, and he is at his best by far in the last frame. The All-Pro back has three first-half touchdowns on the ground compared to six in the second half, while his average increases gradually from 4.4 yards per carry in quarter one until it's a whopping 6.0 in the fourth. And as CSNPhilly.com’s Reuben Frank often likes to point out, no back in NFL history has more 40-yard touchdown runs in the fourth quarter than McCoy.

There isn’t a better finisher in the league, but the Eagles can only lean on No. 25 down the stretch if they’re in the driver’s seat, or at least within one possession. As long as they can contain Brees and Graham though, Philadelphia has what it needs to exploit New Orleans’ one glaring hole.

As long as they are in the lead or the score is close coming down the fourth quarter, I like Shady and the Birds' chances.

Union-Galaxy 5 things: Union aim for 1st win against 'angry' Galaxy

Union-Galaxy 5 things: Union aim for 1st win against 'angry' Galaxy

Union vs. Los Angeles Galaxy
10:30 p.m. on TCN

The Union travel to the west coast this weekend in search of anything resembling success. Fresh off a bitter draw, which snapped a four-game losing streak but involved spoiling a three-goal lead, the beleaguered Union (0-4-3) will take on the angry Los Angeles Galaxy (2-5-0) on Saturday night (10:30 p.m., TCN) at the StubHub Center.

Here are five things to know:

1.Getting Away In LA
The Union could use a vacation. 

Two weeks ago, the league's lone winless club, were left embarrassed as New York City FC's David Villa scored a goal from midfield to cement the Union's fourth-straight loss. Last week, the hard-luck club gave up a three-goal lead in a span of 50 minutes to draw the Montreal Impact. 

"In some ways, our guys getting away right now, maybe clearing their head, to sleep in a different bed, can be an advantage for us," Union manager Jim Curtin said. "Nobody is happy with how things have gone. We have to look towards LA and try to get a result out there."

It's been said before, but the Union desperately need positivity. The club hasn’t felt victory since Aug. 27, 2016, and has gone winless through roughly 20-percent of their season. Once loaded with playoff aspirations, the Union are nearly four wins out the postseason picture.

"We're looking to take three points," Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin said. "We've been waiting so long, even some games we play good but don't take the points. This Saturday, we're going to play as a team, fight for every yard on the field and hopefully take three points to Philly with us."

Fafa Picault echoed his teammate's message. 

"We're looking for three points," he said. "We need them." 

2.Finding a Balance
Last week, the Union's focus was on scoring goals, finishing chances and making the most of their limited offensive opportunities. But after scoring three first-half goals against the Montreal Impact last Saturday, the focus is now on keeping goals out of their net.

"The balance isn't quite there," said Curtin, who is still looking for the perfect starting combination to deliver a win. "We've had good moments in 35-minute spurts but we haven't maintained it for 90 minutes, so we're still in search of a group that can go out and execute for 90 minutes." 

Yet that group Curtin is searching for won't be easy to find. Early in the season, the Union tried defensive-minded Derrick Jones at the No. 8 spot, which Alejandro Bedoya at No. 10. It didn't work, which forced Curtin to bench Jones, move Bedoya to his more natural No. 8 position and activate Roland Alberg at the 10. 

Last week, the manager even benched right back Keegan Rosenberry in favor of Ray Gaddis, making Saturday’s starting roster a mystery.

"It's very challenging right now," Curtin said. "The group still remains together, they continue to work and it's not for lack of effort. It's about getting little plays cleaned up in front of both goals."

Those little plays have cost the Union. The club has allowed an Eastern Conference-worst 14 goals in seven games, including eight in their last three matches. 

"I've said it every time, if we're gonna give up a minimum of two goals every game, we're not gonna win a game," Bedoya said. "You can't. You can't win a game if you"re letting two goals every game. We need to get better and step it up defensively and get a shutout, at least."

3. Troubled Galaxy
Much like the Union, Curt Onalfo's Galaxy are struggling. 

The typically powerful club was destroyed, 3-0, by the Seattle Sounders last weekend, marking its third loss in its last four matches. The downturn is an unusual sight for a team that boasts players like Giovani Dos Santos, Romain Alessandrini and Jermaine Jones. 

"It's a matter of when you go through adversity and difficult times, you find out what you're all about," Onalfo told LAGalaxy.com. "That's when people step up and true character rises. I believe in the group and the vision of what we're doing. We didn't draw it up this way at all, but we stay strong and stay confident. We're looking forward and we're going to get a result on Saturday."

Knowing that the Galaxy are marking Saturday as a must-win match, the Union are preparing for the host's best and most aggressive punches. 

"They are a dangerous team coming off a 3-0 loss at home, so they will be angry," Curtin said. "It won’t get any easier for us. We have to work on some things defensively and in our attack, we're fighting to get our first win."

And while the Union hope preying on the limping Galaxy can give them a spark, the Galaxy hope facing the struggling Union can help jump start their season.

"We have to start collecting points so we can move up," Galaxy center back Daniel Steres told the website. "We're just worried about the next game, that's why it's a must-win. It's at home and we have to get three points."

4. Keep an eye on
Jermaine Jones: Looking to spark the Galaxy attack, Onalfo may choose to play Jones in a more aggressive midfield position. Jones has never scored against the Union in three tries and has one goal this season.

Roland Alberg: Once again, Alberg is the player to watch for the Union. Expected to make his third consecutive start on Saturday, the Union’s new starting No. 10 scored twice against the Impact. As he goes, so does the Union’s offense.

5. This and that
The Union are an unfavorable 1-6-2 against the Galaxy all-time. 

Former Union forward Jack McInerney could face his old club on Saturday. McInerney, who was signed by the Galaxy on April 18, wasn’t quite ready to be activated because of conditioning. He played four full seasons with the Union.

Because of injury, the Galaxy will be without Sebastian Lletget and Robbie Rogers, while the Union will continue to miss Josh Yaro, Maurice Edu, John McCarthy and Ken Tribbett. 

Phillies-Dodgers 5 things: Phils face resurgent Brandon McCarthy

Phillies-Dodgers 5 things: Phils face resurgent Brandon McCarthy

Phillies (11-10) at Dodgers (12-12)
9:10 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies' six-game winning streak came to an abrupt end out west Friday night. The beauty of baseball is that you have a chance to start a new streak a day later. Zach Eflin looks to avenge a poor performance from last season while the Dodgers send out veteran righty Brandon McCarthy at home.

Here are five things to know for Saturday evening's game.

1. Two strong starts for Eflin
In his second season as a big-league starter, Eflin is off to a lot better start than last year. 

If you remember his MLB debut, he gave up eight runs and retired just eight batters against a Blue Jays team that could hit the snot out of the ball … and did. Through two starts, Eflin had a 10.80 ERA and two losses to his résumé before coming into his own over the next two months.

This year has been just about the opposite. Eflin clearly looks comfortable on a major-league mound. He's turned Clay Buchholz's spot in the rotation into a positive. He's allowed just three runs and one home run in 12 innings, good for a 2.25 ERA.

The modern thinking is that an ideal pitcher strikes out a lot of batters, avoids walks and home runs, and induces weak contact. Eflin has done all but the strikeouts. His sinker has been marvelous and the Mets/Braves had little chance to do damage against it. Pete Mackanin described the sinker as a bowling ball. That just about says it all. The sinker won't induce that many swings and misses — thus the lack of strikeouts — but he can throw it in the zone and keep hitters off balance.

The Dodgers kind of ended Eflin's season last year. In reality, it was dueling knee injuries that did Eflin in (see story), but the Dodgers were the last team to take advantage of an ailing Eflin, hitting three home runs and scoring seven runs in just three innings Aug. 8. Even the outs in that game were generally line drives. Chase Utley, Yasmani Grandal and Corey Seager — all of whom could be in the lineup Saturday — took the now-23-year-old righty deep.

Being a righty against the Dodgers isn't all that advantageous as the team boasts those three hitters and Adrian Gonzalez, Andrew Toles and Cody Bellinger as lefties who can put up disruptive plate appearances. Unfortunately for the Phillies, they have a rotation full of righties and are unable to take advantage of the Dodgers' platoon issues.

2. Dodgers send out resurgent righty
The first two seasons of Brandon McCarthy's deal with the Dodgers essentially went by the wayside. Now, the 33-year-old starter is picking up where he left off in 2014.

McCarthy has long been one of the more entertaining and thoughtful players in baseball, as evidenced by his Twitter account. The veteran righty has also been a steadily average to occasionally above-average pitcher in 12 MLB seasons, bouncing around teams mostly on the west coast. He posted career-worst numbers with the Diamondbacks in the first half of 2014, but he rebounded in the second half with the Yankees, pitching to a 2.89 ERA in 90 innings despite the hitter-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium.

He parlayed that second half into a four-year, $48 million deal with the Dodgers and that was almost immediately derailed by Tommy John surgery. Going into 2017, he had thrown just 63 innings and made only 13 starts in the first half of his contract. McCarthy was one of many Dodgers pitchers on the disabled list during a 2016 with a record-setting number of injuries for the club.

But now he's apparently back to form and, perhaps most importantly, he's healthy. He's made it through four starts unscathed this year and is 3-0 with a 2.25 ERA to boot. He's allowed just 18 hits in 24 innings. Similar to Eflin, he relies primarily on a dynamic sinker that sits in the low-to-mid 90s. He also features a low 90s cutter and an 80 mph curveball, both of which grade out well this season.

Only three current Phillies have any history vs. McCarthy. With his history in the AL West with the Mariners, Michael Saunders has faced McCarthy plenty with sub-par results, going 2 for 13 with five strikeouts. Freddy Galvis is 3 for 3 off the righty while Andres Blanco is 0 for 1.

3. How does the Dodgers' bullpen stack up?
Going into Friday's action, the Dodgers' bullpen had a 3.15 collective ERA, good for eighth in all of baseball and second-best in the National League. As a whole, the crew strikes out 10.29 batters per nine innings and has the highest wins above replacement of any bullpen in baseball.

Any conversation about the Dodgers' 'pen starts with Kenley Jansen, one of the premier closers in the game today. He overwhelms hitters with a cutter many consider reminiscent of Mariano Rivera. It isn't quite up to Rivera's level, but it is still wildly effective. He has a 2.16 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 9 1/3 innings this season, locking down six saves in six chances. He dominated the Phillies on Friday night.

Setting up for him primarily is righty flamethrower Pedro Baez. Baez pitches with a dreadfully slow pace but great results, striking out batters at a similar clip and takes a 1.08 ERA into the weekend. Righty Josh Fields and lefty Grant Dayton each hadn't allowed a run this year before Fields let one up in the eighth inning Friday while lefty Luis Avilan has been effective primarily vs. lefties. 

While Chris Hatcher and Ross Stripling, both righties, each has a loss this season, they've still achieved OK results pitching often in low leverage situations. The biggest disappointment for Los Angeles has been the offseason signing of former Giants closer Sergio Romo. The 34-year-old has a 10.57 ERA through 10 appearances and has walked as many batters as he's struck out. If the Phillies get to face Romo in a big situation this weekend, it'll be a tremendous opportunity to do some damage.

4. Players to watch
Phillies: Freddy Galvis takes a 10-game hitting streak into action on Saturday night. Not only does he have good numbers off McCarthy, he's also simply off to the best start to his career. The Phillies' shortstop has traditionally been a better second half hitter but he has a career-best .269 average and .487 slugging percentage thus far.

Dodgers: While he is currently playing corner outfield, rookie Cody Bellinger is the Dodgers' first baseman of the future. Currently the No. 10 prospect in baseball, he had five home runs in Triple A Oklahoma City and is projected to have legitimate in-game power at the major league level. 

5. This and that
• The Phillies went 2-4 vs. the Dodgers last season and haven't won a series at Dodger Stadium since April 21-24, 2014, when they took three of four.

• Frequent trade partners in recent history, the Phillies and Dodgers have teamed up for eight trades since the 2012 trade deadline. Eflin himself came to the Phillies in the 2014 Jimmy Rollins trade.

• McCarthy is typically at his worst in April. He has a 5.01 ERA for March/April in his career, his worst for any month. However, he pitched well the two times he faced the Phillies. He threw eight shutout innings in 2013 and gave up two runs while striking out 12 in seven innings during the 2014 season.