Zone Read: Eagles-Cowboys, the Day After

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys

Normally we use this space for a thorough recap of the previous day’s game, and there will be some of that.

But it’s a playoff week for the first time in three years in Philadelphia, so let’s lead off with 10 things you should know about the next opponent: the Saints.

1. New Orleans took care of business Sunday, crushing the Bucs 42-17 to improve to 11-5 on the season – that’s 8-0 at home and 3-5 on the road. The Saints won four of their last five and were 2-3 overall against teams that are in the postseason. Going into Week 17, Football Outsiders had New Orleans as the No. 7 team overall – fifth on offense, 11th on defense and 24th on special teams.

2. Saints players don’t exactly enjoy being peppered with questions about why they’re a different team on the road. From Jeff Duncan of The Times-Picayune:

The New Orleans Saints’ regular-season finale wasn’t 30 minutes old and already the questions began.

The Saints barely had enough time to shed their pads after bashing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 42-17, Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome before the onslaught commenced.

Can you win on the road?

What do you have to do differently?

How can road Mr. Hyde become road Dr. Jekyll?

The Saints were prepared for the insurgency. They came armed with readymade deflector shields.

“We’re going to switch to Green Gatorade,” said right tackle Zach Strief, tongue planted firmly in cheek.

The Saints were 3-5 away from New Orleans and 1-5 in their last six road games. To be fair, they weren’t exactly playing push-overs in those matchups. The losses came against the Patriots, Jets, Seahawks, Rams and Panthers. Of those teams, only the Rams (7-9) finished under .500. Three of the five losses were by seven points or fewer.

3. For the Saints, everything starts and ends with Drew Brees. The 34-year-old just put together one of the best regular seasons of his career, completing 68.6 percent of his passes (second league-wide) for 5,162 yards (second) and 39 touchdowns (second). He averaged 7.94 yards per attempt (seventh) and was intercepted just 12 times, or once every 54.2 attempts. Against the blitz, Brees has been deadly, completing 67.3 percent of his passes and averaging 8.6 yards per attempt with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions, per STATS, Inc.

4. There will be a serious focus this week on big plays. Brees had 41 pass plays of 25+ yards on the season – second-most in the league behind only Peyton Manning (46), per STATS, Inc. In the Saints’ finale against Tampa, six different players had at least one catch of 20+ yards. The Eagles’ defense finished the season having allowed 62 pass plays of 20+ yards, fourth-most in the league. The No. 1 threat in New Orleans’ passing game is Jimmy Graham. The athletic/explosive tight end finished the regular season with 86 catches on 144 targets. He piled up 1,215 yards, averaged 14.1 yards per catch, got in the end zone 16 times and had 19 receptions of 20+ yards. The matchup is even more concerning for the Eagles, considering they let Jason Witten pile up 12 catches for 135 yards on 16 targets.

5. But it’s not just Graham. Brees utilizes a plethora of weapons. Five different Saints totaled at least 500 yards receiving; four had 70 catches or more. Marques Colston has posted 70 catches or more in seven of eight NFL seasons. This year, he had 75 for 943 and five touchdowns. Per Pro Football Focus, 41 of Colston’s 75 catches came out of the slot. Kenny Stills, a rookie fifth-round pick out of Oklahoma, has given the Saints a vertical threat. He averaged 20.0 yards per catch, tops in the league. Running backs Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles combined for 148 catches.

6. Up front, the Saints made a major shake-up two games ago, inserting rookie third-round pick Terron Armstead into the starting lineup at left tackle. Armstead had not played an NFL snap until Week 16. He struggled in his debut, but played better against Tampa. The Saints have one of the best guard tandems in the game in Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans – both are 2013 Pro Bowl selections. Brian De La Puente has started every game at center for New Orleans the past two seasons. And Zach Strief has been very good at right tackle. New Orleans entered Week 17 with the fourth-best sack rate in the NFL, per Football Outsiders.

7. Defensively, the Saints employ a 3-4 blitzing scheme under Rob Ryan. Going into Week 17, Football Outsiders had New Orleans as the 11th-ranked defense – sixth against the pass and 20th against the run. The Saints allowed just 19.0 points per game, fourth-best in the league. Two dynamic pass-rushers lead the way for Ryan’s group: defensive lineman Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette. Jordan, a first-round pick in 2011, made the Pro Bowl and posted 12.5 sacks. Galette, a fourth-year player, added 12. New Orleans finished the season with 49 sacks, fourth-most in the league.

8. The Saints’ weakness is their run defense. New Orleans is surrendering 4.6 yards per carry, fifth-worst in the NFL. Their inside linebackers are veterans Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne. Up front, in addition to Jordan, New Orleans starts former Eagles first-round pick Brodrick Bunkley at nose tackle.

9. The Saints’ secondary finished ninth in yards per attempt (6.8) and 15th in opponents’ completion percentage (60.0). New Orleans allowed 20 passing touchdowns, compared to 12 interceptions. Cornerback Keenan Lewis signed with the Saints from Pittsburgh in the offseason and has played well. Veteran Jabari Greer suffered a season-ending knee injury in November and has been replaced by second-year player Corey White, who has started 10 games in his career. First-round pick Kenny Vaccaro suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 16. The Saints now go with veterans Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper at safety.

10. Leftovers: Thomas is the team’s leading rusher with 549 yards. He averaged 3.7 YPC and did not have a run over 20 yards all season. Mark Ingram averaged 4.9 YPC. Sproles has been used almost exclusively as a receiver with just 53 rushing attempts on the season. …The Saints signed veteran kicker Shayne Graham before Week 17. He hit a 24- and 40-yarder against Tampa.

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