New Orleans Saints: Fletcher Cox
January, 3, 2014
The way things have gone for the Philadelphia Eagles this season, you half expected to hear that Drew Brees fell down an elevator shaft or was hit by some space junk. But no, the New Orleans Saints' superb quarterback will not go the way of Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson and Tony Romo the week before their teams played the Eagles.
Of course, that doesn't mean anyone knows which Brees will show up for the first-round playoff game Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field. Will it be the Brees with the 8-0 record at home, or the Brees who has gone 3-5 on the road this season?
In search of the answer to this and other questions, ESPN.com reporters Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Phil Sheridan in Philadelphia exchanged insight and info.
Phil Sheridan: Let’s start with the obvious: the disparity between the Saints at home and on the road. Is it mostly Brees? The fast track at the Superdome versus grass fields elsewhere? Exposure to electromagnetic waves in the outdoors? Some combination?
Mike Triplett: Shoot, if I had the answer to that question, I’d probably be interviewing for some of these head-coaching vacancies around the league. It really is a mystery. Of course, the most obvious answer is that it’s harder for all teams to play on the road -- especially when weather conditions become a factor. And the Saints have had some road struggles in the past (including an 0-3 playoff record with Sean Payton and Drew Brees). But even in those playoff losses, their offense showed up. We've never seen a season quite like this, where they've had so much trouble scoring points on the road.
Honestly, it’s really come down to the football stuff: Early turnovers that put them in a hole, drive-killing penalties, an inability to stop the run. I expect their offense will still put up plenty of yards and points in this game, but I’m curious to see if they can avoid those costly turnovers -- and if they can find a way to contain LeSean McCoy. Those are the trends they must reverse from their previous road losses.
While we’re dwelling on the negative, what could be the Eagles’ fatal flaw? If something goes wrong for them in this game, what do you think it will be?
Sheridan: The Snowball Effect. While the Eagles' defense has done a remarkable job of keeping points low -- 11 of the past 12 opponents have scored 22 or fewer -- there is a persistent suspicion that the smoke could clear and the mirrors could crack. Matt Cassel hung 48 points on them two weeks ago, the most since Peyton Manning put up 52 in Week 4. Even Sunday night, Kyle Orton was only a couple of slightly better throws away from scoring another touchdown or two. Brees is obviously capable of making those throws. If the Saints can move the ball the way many teams have, plus translate the yards into points, it could force the Eagles to play catch-up. And we haven’t really seen Nick Foles in a shootout-type game yet. Jay Cutler didn't show up two weeks ago when the Bears came to town, and a freak snowfall took Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson out of their game.
The stats say Rob Ryan has transformed the Saints' defense from a farce into a force. Does that align with what you see when you watch them? Does Ryan have the scheme and the personnel to be physical with the Eagles' receivers while getting pressure on Foles?
Triplett: That’s absolutely true, Phil. Ryan has been an outstanding fit for this team. I know Philly fans didn't see his best results with the Dallas Cowboys the past two years. But it must have been a perfect storm here, where the Saints' defense had just given up the most yards in NFL history under former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in 2012. The players were ready for a change -- and Ryan is all about change. He constantly adapts his approach from week to week, building around his players’ strengths and tailoring game plans for certain opponents.
Several young players are having breakout years -- including pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette (12 sacks each this season) and cornerback Keenan Lewis, who is a true No. 1 corner. He’s physical with long arms and plays well in man coverage. I imagine he’ll be matched up a lot against DeSean Jackson.
From what I've read about Chip Kelly, it seems as though he’s a kindred spirit of both Ryan and Sean Payton -- trying to create confusion and mismatches. Is it possible for you to boil down his philosophy to one or two paragraphs?
Sheridan: Force the issue. That’s the underlying principle. It’s behind the no-huddle, up-tempo approach, and it drives many of the unusual things he does with formations and blocking schemes. Kelly wants to spread the field horizontally and vertically, forcing defenses to account for every offensive player and every square foot of grass. He’ll line right tackle Lane Johnson out like a wide receiver, or left tackle Jason Peters at tight end on the right, or DeSean Jackson in the backfield, just to see how the defense responds. If he sees a mismatch, he’ll exploit it until the defense corrects it.
It must be said that Kelly inherited a lot of offensive talent that was pretty darn good under Andy Reid. The line has been outstanding and, just as important, healthy. Jackson, McCoy and the other skill players are exceptional. The X factor has been the way Foles has mastered what Kelly wants to do. There are a lot of quick reads and decisions for the quarterback to make -- whether it’s a zone-read or a package play with run/pass options -- and Foles has translated Kelly’s dry-erase board to the field very well, leading the Eagles to a 7-1 record since they were 3-5 at the midway point.
Payton is a similar creative offensive mind with an NFL pedigree. The first time I met him, he was the Eagles' quarterback coach on Ray Rhodes' late 1990s teams, trying to win with Bobby Hoying and various Detmers. Is he any different or more driven since serving his one-year suspension? Is there a sense the Saints are back where they belong and determined to make a deep run?
Triplett: I think it’s a great comparison. Although the offenses don’t look identical, the philosophies are the same -- create, identify and exploit mismatches. The Saints will actually rotate in a ton of different personnel groupings early in games, as well as mix up their formations, to see how defenses react.
Payton hasn't changed drastically this season. One of the things that stood out to me most early in the season was his patience in games -- how he’d stick with a methodical attack, settling for a lot of check-down passes, etc., to win games against teams such as Chicago and San Francisco. Lately, Payton's been a little stumped in similar-style games on the road, though.
Overall, the idea with him is that he is hyperfocused on every detail that can help this team win. Brees keeps saying Payton’s leaving no stone unturned. It started with switching defensive coordinators on his second day back on the job, then things such as changing the team’s conditioning program, then recently switching out the left tackle and kicker heading into Week 16.
I’ll leave you with a quick question, Phil. Who are the one or two players we haven’t talked about much who could have a big impact on this game? From my end, the answer would probably be those young pass-rushers, Jordan and Galette.
Sheridan: I’m going to go with the Eagles’ key pass-rushers, too -- Fletcher Cox, Trent Cole and Connor Barwin. The Eagles didn't sack Orton at all Sunday night in Dallas. Orton is no Brees, but he does get the ball out quickly. So it might not result in many sacks against the Saints, but the defense has to disrupt Brees' rhythm as much as possible. Cole had eight sacks in the second half of the season. Cox has been outstanding at collapsing the pocket. Barwin is as likely to jam Jimmy Graham at the line of scrimmage as rush the passer.
But somebody from that group -- or maybe it will be Brandon Graham or Vinny Curry -- has to make Brees feel uncomfortable, or it’s going to be a long night for the Eagles. As you pointed out, the Saints have made more mistakes on the road than at home. Forcing some of those mistakes, preferably early, could make the air feel colder and the wind feel sharper.