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.

Snap counts: Dorial Green-Beckham's playing time continues to increase

Snap counts: Dorial Green-Beckham's playing time continues to increase

Wendell Smallwood played just seven snaps and had just three carries coming into Sunday's game against the Steelers. 

In his third game, the rookie fifth-rounder from West Virginia led the Eagles in snaps and rushing attempts. 

Smallwood carries 17 times on his 24 snaps — many as the Eagles worked to run out the clock. Smallwood rushed for 79 yards and a touchdown, impressing his teammates along the way (see story). It was the best rushing performance for an Eagles rookie since Bryce Brown in 2012. 

Smallwood and Sproles each had 24 snaps. Kenjon Barner had 12 and starter Ryan Mathews had just eight. After the game, head coach Doug Pederson said Mathews was being evaluated. The running back had an ankle injury not long ago. 

As far as the rest of the offense, the entire starting line and Carson Wentz played all 65 offensive snaps. 

Jordan Matthews led the way for the wide receivers with 55 snaps. Dorial Green-Beckham continues to be more involved, going from 32 percent to 46 percent to 49 percent of offensive snaps on Sunday. He appears to be ahead of Josh Huff in many cases. 

The poor Eagles defense had to play 60 snaps on Sunday after two straight weeks with 52. Last year, the Eagles' defense averaged over 74 snaps per game. 

The Eagles have held the ball for 34-plus minutes in three consecutive games for the first time since 2008. 

What really stands out on the defensive snap counts is that Mychal Kendricks had just nine snaps on Sunday. Kendricks, who came into the game with a broken nose and a quad injury, is still a starter but has been demoted. He's no longer in the team's nickel package. 

Another interesting note is that while Vinny Curry began the spring practices as a starter, he was overtaken by Brandon Graham. Now Graham is playing so well it's hard to take him off the field. Connor Barwin led the defensive ends with 47 snaps on Sunday, followed by Graham's 42. Curry had just 26. Curry got a big contract in the offseason, but is clearly the third D-end. 

Through three games, here are the snap counts for the Eagles' top three defensive ends: 

Barwin — 124

Graham — 115

Curry — 74

Meanwhile, Destiny Vaeao picked up 19 snaps as he continues to show he's a solid depth piece. And Stephen Tulloch got 11 as Jim Schwartz continues a little rotation at linebacker. 

Here are full snap counts from Sunday's game: 

Offense

Allen Barbre: 65 snaps (100 percent)

Brandon Brooks: 65 (100)

Lane Johnson: 65 (100)

Jason Peters: 65 (100)

Jason Kelce: 65 (100)

Carson Wentz: 65 (100)

Jordan Matthews: 55 (85)

Nelson Agholor: 52 (80)

Brent Celek: 45 (80)

Trey Burton: 33 (51)

Dorial Green-Beckham: 32 (49)

Josh Huff: 26 (40)

Wendell Smallwood: 24 (37)

Darren Sproles: 24 (37)

Matt Tobin: 12 (18)

Kenjon Barner: 12 (18)

Ryan Mathews: 8 (12)

Beau Allen: 1 (2)

Stefen Wisniewski: 1 (2)

Defense

Malcolm Jenkins: 60 snaps (100 percent)

Rodney McLeod: 60 (100)

Nolan Carroll: 60 (100)

Ron Brooks: 58 (97)

Nigel Bradham: 56 (93)

Jalen Mills: 53 (88)

Jordan Hicks: 49 (82)

Connor Barwin: 47 (78)

Brandon Graham: 42 (70)

Fletcher Cox: 41 (68)

Bennie Logan: 29 (48)

Vinny Curry: 26 (43)

Destiny Vaeao: 19 (32)

Beau Allen: 17 (28)

Marcus Smith: 13 (22)

Stephen Tulloch: 11 (18)

Mychal Kendricks: 9 (15)

Steven Means: 6 (10)

Jaylen Watkins: 3 (5)

Najee Goode: 1 (2)

Cuban ballplayers mourn loss of Jose Fernandez

Cuban ballplayers mourn loss of Jose Fernandez

CHICAGO — Chicago Cubs outfielder Jorge Soler played with Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez when the two were growing up in Cuba. They traveled together to Venezuela for a youth tournament.

Soler said Fernandez's ability was obvious, right from the start.

"Since he was a child, since we were kids, I knew he had something," Soler said through a translator. "He had a talent. It was very impressive."

Fernandez's death in a boating accident at the age of 24 cast a dark shadow over the major leagues on Sunday. Miami's home game against Atlanta was canceled, and several ballparks observed moments of silence. Wrigley Field's iconic hand-operated scoreboard displayed Fernandez's No. 16 in its pitching column next to Miami.

But the loss of Fernandez was felt most acutely in baseball's growing Cuban community.

"He was one of those guys that everybody loved," St. Louis Cardinals catcher Brayan Pena said. "He was one of those guys that everybody knew exactly what he meant to our community. For us, it's a big, big loss. It's one of those things where our thoughts and prayers are obviously with his family, the Marlins' organization and the fans. But it gets a little bit closer because he was part of our Cuban family."

There were 23 Cubans on opening-day major league rosters this year, an increase of five over last season and the most since the commissioner's office began releasing data in 1995. Many of the players share similar stories when it comes to their perilous journey from the communist country to the majors, and the difficulty of adjusting to life in the United States.

A native of Santa Clara, Cuba, Fernandez was unsuccessful in his first three attempts to defect, and spent several months in prison. At 15, Fernandez and his mother finally made it to Mexico, and were reunited in Florida with his father, who had escaped from Cuba two years earlier.

He was drafted by the Marlins in 2011, and quickly turned into one of the majors' top pitchers.

"How he was on the mound was a reflection of him," Oakland first baseman Yonder Alonso said. "A guy who had a lot of fun, was himself. A very talkative guy, he would come into the room and you'd know he was in the room. Never big-leagued anyone, very professional. No matter what, he would talk to you about hitting, because he thought he was the best hitter, and he (would) talk to you about pitching, because he thought he was the best pitcher."

Alonso said Fernandez's death was "a big-time shock." Yasiel Puig used torn pieces of white athletic tape to display Fernandez's jersey on the wall in the home dugout at Dodger Stadium. Cardinals rookie Aledmys Diaz, who had known Fernandez since they were little kids, declined an interview request through a team spokeswoman.

"We Cuban players know each other well and all of us have a great relationship," Pena said. "For us, it's devastating news when we woke up. We were sending text messages to each other and we were showing support. It's something that obviously nobody expects."

Fernandez, who became a U.S. citizen last year, also was beloved for his stature in the Cuban community in Miami.

"He was a great humanitarian," Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman said through a translator. "He gave a lot to the community and I think that's why he got a lot of respect from the community in terms of what a great person he was and always giving, in terms of always willing to help out in whatever way he can to try to better and progress within the community someone that perhaps wasn't as fortunate as he was."

The 28-year-old Chapman lives in the Miami-area in the offseason. He said he spent some time with Fernandez while he was home.

"He would come by my house. I would go by his," Chapman said. "We would have long conversations. We would talk a lot. We spent a lot of good amount of time together. It was very special for me."