Experts make their final Eagles-Saints predictions
Cameron Jordan (left) and Junior Galette (right) each set career highs with 12½ sacks this season. (USA Today Images)
No team made a bigger jump on defense from 2012 to 2013 than the Saints, who fired coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and replaced him with Rob Ryan as they joined the bandwagon of teams transitioning from the 4-3 front to the 3-4 scheme.
Under Ryan, who’s as bombastic as his twin brother, Rex, and father, Buddy, the Saints went from second-worst in scoring defense (28.4) to fourth-best (19) despite losing several key players for the season to injuries.
The catalyst for the defense is their front seven, with edge rushers Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan, who each set personal bests with 12½ sacks. Galette, an outside linebacker, is lightning fast off the edges. He gave Todd Herremans fits last year when Herremans played right tackle. Herremans eventually left that game with a foot injury that put him out for the season.
Galette moves from side to side, so both left tackle Jason Peters and rookie right tackle Lane Johnson will each get their chances against the fourth-year linebacker. Johnson had some pass-protection issues against Dallas and continues to have ups and downs.
Like his father and twin brother, Rob Ryan makes no apologies about bringing heavy pressure. The Saints’ 49 sacks are fourth-most in the NFL. The blitzes come from all corners and angles. If the Eagles can hold off the pass rush, Nick Foles will have plenty of opportunities to make plays downfield against single coverage. If not, Foles will take a beating. Inside, the Saints rely on Brodrick Bunkley and Akiem Hicks to stop the run. Bunkley, the former Eagles tackle, has always been stout, but he’s getting long in the tooth and his snaps are shared. The Saints aren’t a great run-stopping team. They allowed 4.6 yards per rush, tied for fourth-worst.
They aren’t overly fast or athletic up front, so Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense and LeSean McCoy’s rushing prowess could be the Eagles’ best weapon, and their best way of keeping the Saints’ offense on the sideline. Three running backs this year -- Doug Martin, Chris Ivory and Zac Stacy -- rushed for 133 yards or more against the Saints.
Inside linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne are tackling machines. Lofton, a former Falcon, and Hawthorne, a former Seahawk, have piled up tackles this season and can cover ground but neither is considered an elite tackler that would threaten McCoy’s ability to shake defenders and get past the second level. The inside linebacker group took a big hit in November, when three-time Pro Bowler Jonathan Vilma went down with a knee injury.
Given the Saints’ ability to generate pressure and their problems against the run, Kelly would be wise to lean heavily on McCoy, Bryce Brown and Chris Polk, a trio that’s rounded into form over the past three games.
The Saints have an improved secondary, but the recent loss of rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro to a broken ankle really hurts. Vaccaro, the former Texas standout, was an excellent run defender with the athleticism to cover slot receivers. He had one sack, six pass deflections, an interception and a forced fumble in 14 games. They still have Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins, two holdovers from their 2009 Super Bowl team. They’re an experienced combo but not great matches against DeSean Jackson from the slot and inside receivers Jason Avant and Zach Ertz.
Cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Corey White are good cover guys, but the Saints lost their top corner, Jabari Greer, in November to a torn ACL. Lewis, at 6-1, is their tallest corner, so Riley Cooper’s size could present problems on jump balls and deep throws downfield. Jackson last year caught a 77-yard touchdown against the Saints, the third-longest TD of his career.
To read how the Eagles' defense matches up with the Saints' offense, click here.