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.

Sixers teased in preseason finale with Jahlil Okafor back, Nerlens Noel out

Sixers teased in preseason finale with Jahlil Okafor back, Nerlens Noel out


MIAMI — Jahlil Okafor called it a “tease.”

He was talking about his oh-so-brief 2016-2017 debut, but he could have also been summarizing the Sixers' constant state of taking one step forward and one (injured) leg back.

Okafor, a 6-11 center and the NBA’s third overall pick in the 2015 draft, played 7:32 minutes on Friday and produced four points, one rebound, one assist, one block and one turnover. He had been held out in camp previously because of knee soreness.

His return was the good news for the Sixers.

But before Friday’s 113-110 exhibition finale win over the Miami Heat even started (see Instant Replay), the Sixers announced that center/forward Nerlens Noel will have a “minor surgical procedure in the coming days” on his injured left knee (see story).

Sixers center Joel Embiid, who has missed the past two years because of foot surgeries, empathizes with Noel.

“It’s hard,” Embiid said. “Obviously we need Nerlens if we want to win. But that’s basketball. Things happen. You can’t control injuries.

“I feel bad for him because this is the beginning of the season. Everybody wants to play the beginning of the season. But I’m sure he is going to work hard to come back even stronger.”

On the positive side for the Sixers, there was the return of Okafor … even it felt like baby steps for him.

“I started to feel really good,” said Okafor, who had surgery on his right knee in March and experienced soreness on that same knee Sept. 30. “It was kind of like a tease to me because I really got going. I wanted to continue to play, but that’s why I have the medical staff to keep me disciplined.”

Sixers coach Brett Brown said before the game that he would keep Okafor to just six to eight minutes, and he was true to his word.

Okafor, who made the only shot he attempted from the floor and was 2 for 4 on free throws, did not play in the second half.

“The scoring piece to my game, that’s like riding a bicycle,” Okafor said. “I know I can score the ball. It was good to get back out there with my teammates and hear them cheer for me on the side.”

Okafor said he tried to convince Brown to let him extend past the script of no more than eight minutes.

“He was like, ‘Have your lawyer call my lawyer,'" Okafor said. “We will talk about the season home opener (on Wednesday night against Oklahoma City), and hopefully I can increase my minutes.”

Okafor said he didn’t want to put a number on how many minutes he thought he could’ve played in his season debut except to say he knew he could play more.

Interestingly, Embiid, who had 18 points and nine rebounds in 18 minutes, said he felt Okafor was a bit fatigued.

“I think he was a little bit tired,” Embiid said. “Obviously, he hasn’t played in a while. But just like me, he’s going to dig down. He is a proven scorer. He can do whatever he wants on the court.

“Once he gets back in shape, we as a team are going to be really good.”

Okafor was a minus-5 while he was on the court. But Brown said he was impressed by some of the less-hyped aspects of Okafor’s game.

“I thought he was really good defensively,” Brown said. “He sat in his stance and moved his feet. I thought he did a great job of fronting the post.”

Brown said the Noel injury was almost unfair.

“Clearly, it was a situation in the preseason where he would have played a lot,” Brown said. “The timing is unfortunate.”

Temple runs past South Florida, claims sole possession of AAC East

USA Today Images

Temple runs past South Florida, claims sole possession of AAC East

Temple didn’t mince words about its early setbacks in 2016.

The Owls were “hurt” after their season-opening loss to Army. They were “angry” after dropping a rivalry game to Penn State. They stressed a need to “finish” following a blown lead to Memphis.

All of that heartbreak went into making the Owls what they are today: leaders in the American Athletic Conference East Division.

Temple turned the tables on run-oriented South Florida to gash the Bulls for 319 rushing yards (210 coming from Ryquell Armstead) in a 46-30 win on Friday night at Lincoln Financial Field (instant replay)

The victory helped the Owls (5-3, 3-1 AAC) avenge last season’s blowout and, more importantly, move into a first-place tie in the conference’s East Division. With back-to-back wins over South Florida and Central Florida, Temple now holds tiebreakers over its two closest competitors in the East.

“Last year’s success we had as a team was built on the years we went 2-10 and 6-6,” head coach Matt Rhule said. “It might sound corny to you guys, but you lose games and you learn all these lessons and you learn how to win. 

“Toward the end of last year, you have some success. It doesn’t end the way you wanted it to. You come back this year, all those losses we had or the certain losses we had, we hated them but the kids did a good job of trying to learn from them.”

Temple showed just how much it learned from all of those tough lessons on Friday night. After getting shredded by the South Florida (6-2, 3-1 AAC) dynamic duo of quarterback Quinton Flowers and tailback Marlon Mack a season ago, TU opted to get its own ground game going in this one to help control both sides of the ball.

It worked to perfection early with Temple scoring on three of its first four possessions, including a 15-play drive that was capped off by a one-yard touchdown catch by tight end Colin Thompson and a 76-yard TD run by Armstead. 

Even later in the game when the Bulls used a quick three-play, 84-yard drive to take a 23-20 lead, the Owls didn’t panic like in past instances. They responded with a three-play drive of their own as Armstead broke free through the right edge for a 42-yard touchdown rumble.

A blocked punt on the ensuing possession provided excellent field position for the Owls, who only needed another two plays for Jahad Thomas to punch it into the end zone from nine yards out for a double-digit lead.

“Just powering guys in the first and second quarter. Just coming in and head-hunting, basically, not shying from contact,” Armstead said of his mindset in the run game. “By the end of the third and fourth quarter, they don’t want to tackle me. It’s just opening up.”

“Our big thing is just finishing the game as best we can,” fullback Nick Sharga said. “I think really just wearing teams down by running the ball toward the end of the game helps our offense out, so we take pride in it.”

The primetime effort was something the Owls’ offense as a whole could take pride in. Temple racked up 528 total yards, 26 first downs, dominated time of possession 39:07 to 20:53 and didn’t commit a turnover.

“There’s a way to win every game. Bill Parcells said that and I believe it,” Rhule said. “We get in the game and it just looked like the downfield passing game was going to be there in terms of some of the throws we threw at the end of the half. And it looked like the power run game was going to be there, so we stuck with it.”

Temple’s defense stayed the course as well. After letting the Bulls close the gap within a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, the Owls’ D tightened with an interception that set up a TD and a sack for a safety to seal the win.

In all, the group held a potent USF team that came into Friday eighth in the nation in rushing (268.4 yards per game) and 15th in total yards (506.4 yards per game) to 165 and 352, respectively.

“We came in the game with a mindset that we were going to play really well,” defensive lineman Praise Martin-Oguike said. “We knew what kind of guys they had. We knew they were going to get some plays on us. It was going to come down to the fourth quarter and it did, so we just kept playing the whole game.”

The ability to just keep playing is a mantra that should stick with Owls, especially now that they are back on top of the East Division. One slip-up and they could be right back to searching for words to describe their level of disappointment for this season.

“This was a team that mirrors us that they try to line up and pound you and they’re just so athletic and physical. This was a huge win for us,” Rhule said. “But as I told them in there, everything you did tonight won’t matter if you lose next week. You better get right back on the process that we do.

“It was just a huge moment for us with Army happening and then Memphis, letting it slip out of our hands. Then last week, kind of making some plays at the end. … There were just so many guys that made plays. That’s what makes it a huge win to me. Obviously it gives us some control, but that all can change in a week or the blink of an eye. They better stay focused.”