Billy Davis on the Saints' offense
Drew Brees has hit Jimmy Graham for a touchdown 16 times this season, otherwise known as once a game. (USA Today Images)
The Saints will easily be the best offensive team the Eagles have faced since the Broncos in Week 4.
And you all know how that game turned out.
In some ways, the Saints have more variety on offense than Denver does. They don’t have the same perimeter threats, but they have more backfield weapons, with two running backs who can make plays in the passing game and an elite tight end who scares the heck out of defensive coordinators.
New Orleans’ road problems have been well chronicled. They’re a dome team and far more effective inside the Superdome than outside it. They’ve never won a road playoff game in team history and went 3-5 on the road this season.
But the idea that the Saints can’t score in cold temperatures or road stadiums is highly exaggerated. In their last two playoff road games, losses to San Francisco and Seattle, they’ve totaled 68 points, an average of 34 per game. Drew Brees, who played in the frigid temps at Purdue, passed for more than 400 yards in each game.
The Saints, who average about 25 points per game this year, average only 17 points on the road, but that probably has more to do with the caliber of their road opponents than their inability to make big plays outside the dome. This year, they’ve played road games against three of the NFL’s top-10 scoring defenses on the road (Seattle, Carolina and New England). Seattle and Carolina are ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in scoring defense.
Everything the Saints do is predicated on their passing game, an attack orchestrated by head coach Sean Payton, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael and Brees. Those three have developed a synergy that makes their offense look like poetry in motion. Payton is a mastermind of using space and misdirection to get his weapons out in space and Brees is the ultimate distributor, an excellent surveyor of defenses with an ultra-quick trigger. They aren’t a high turnover team. Only three teams have fewer giveaways.
Even with a marginal running game, their offense can break down defenses by spreading the ball around. The matchup nightmare is tight end Jimmy Graham, a 6-foot-7 beast who led the NFL this year with 16 touchdown catches and led all TEs with 1,215 receiving yards. He’s essentially a titanic wide receiver. They line him up anywhere, against anyone. He’s too fast for most linebackers and too long for most defensive backs.
Earlier this year, the Patriots held Graham without a single reception by playing man coverage and sticking him with their top cover corner, Aqib Talib. The Eagles could do this with Cary Williams and let Brandon Boykin play outside whenever Graham moved into the slot, but the coaches have been reluctant to change their formula this season.
Wide receiver Marques Colston is still a field stretcher, but his best days are behind him. His longest catch this year went for 35 yards, the first time in his career has hasn’t had one longer, and he's averaged 63 yards per game, the fewest of his career. Rookie wideout Kenny Stills has replaced Colston as the deep threat, averaging 20 yards per reception, the highest of any NFL receiver with at least 30 receptions. The other guys -- Lance Moore, tight end Benjamin Watson, Robert Meachem and rookie Nick Toon -- are complementary parts that pick up scraps. Moore’s a savvy slot receiver.
The Saints running backs aren’t scary. Mark Ingram hasn’t lived up to his first-round billing. He doesn’t run with power or speed, and the Saints have basically given up on him. His 78 carries this season were the fewest of his career. He averages just 4.1 yards per carry in his career. Pierre Thomas is their leading rusher (549 yards), and more dangerous in the passing game, but he's been ruled out of Saturday night's game.
Their most complete halfback is Darren Sproles, a speed demon who can move the chains in a variety of ways. He’s a checkdown waiting to happen and lethal on screens. The Saints love to spring Sproles on backside screens and passes to the flat, catching the defense leaning in the other direction to give Sproles space to create.
Inside linebackers Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans will likely be doing much less gap-shooting and blitzing than they will be dropping into coverage. They must keep Saints receivers in front of them and wrap up at the point of attack to keep New Orleans from churning out long drives and lighting up the scoreboard.
Brees isn’t the guy you want to throw the house at. He was blitzed on just 25 percent of his dropbacks this season, according to Pro Football Focus, and completed 68.6 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns, one interception and a 114.3 passer rating against the extra-man pressure.
The strongest part of their offensive line is the inside, with left guard Jahri Evans, a local who played his college ball at Bloomsburg and just made his fifth Pro Bowl, and right guard Ben Grubbs, another multiple-time Pro Bowler. Right tackle Zach Strief is having his best season. The weak link is left tackle Terron Armstead, a 6-5, 304-pound rookie who’s athletic but lacks polish and experience.
To read how the Eagles' offense matches up with the Saints' defense, click here.