NFC South: Nick Foles



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.


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Quick Take: Saints at Eagles

December, 30, 2013
12/30/13
12:25
AM ET
Three things to know about next Saturday's NFC wild-card playoff game between the New Orleans Saints and the Philadelphia Eagles:

1. Road woes: The Saints (11-5) have to reverse a trend that has gotten uglier as the season has progressed. They finished 3-5 on the road, including three straight road losses in December (at Seattle, St. Louis and Carolina). There’s no great explanation for why the Saints have been such a different team away from home. They’ve struggled to score points and hit on deep passing plays. They’ve turned the ball over too often early in games. And they’ve had trouble stopping the run. All of those things are curable, in theory. But the Saints need to prove it on the field; they came close at Carolina in Week 16 but still managed only 13 points. Weather could be a factor, but early forecasts seem somewhat manageable (temperatures in the 20s or 30s, with no precipitation).

2. Eagles on fire: The opponent might even be scarier than the location. The Eagles (10-6) are one of the NFL’s hottest teams, having won six of their last seven. Nick Foles has been a revelation since taking over as the starting quarterback, with 27 touchdown passes and just two interceptions. And Philadelphia has by far the No. 1 rushing offense in the NFL, led by dangerous running back LeSean McCoy. The Saints will need their safeties to step up and be sure tacklers -- a bigger challenge now that rookie Kenny Vaccaro is out for the season. Increasing the degree of difficulty is the fact the Eagles are an unfamiliar foe for the Saints, led by rookie coach Chip Kelly and his unconventional offense.

3. Saints on fire: Of course, the Saints are no slouches themselves on offense. Although they’ve struggled to bring their show on the road, it’s still some of the most dazzling theater in the NFL at times. Drew Brees just threw for another 381 yards and four touchdowns in Sunday’s 42-17 win over Tampa Bay (three of the TDs for 40 yards or more). And he just wrapped his fourth 5,000-yard passing season, with 39 touchdowns to boot. That will put a scare into the Eagles’ defense, which ranks in the bottom five in the NFL. The Saints finished the season ranked No. 4 on offense and No. 4 on defense. Despite their low seeding, they have one of the highest ceilings of any playoff team.

Rapid Reaction: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

October, 13, 2013
10/13/13
4:06
PM ET

TAMPA, Fla. -- A few thoughts on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 31-20 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles at Raymond James Stadium:

What it means: The Bucs are 0-5 and going nowhere fast. They couldn’t even beat a mediocre team at home. Coach Greg Schiano has lost 10 of his past 11 games, dating back to last season. Schiano is officially on the hot seat and the Bucs are officially in contention for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft. By late in the fourth quarter, much of the rare sellout crowd that remained in the stands was wearing Philadelphia green jerseys. The Bucs have looked to be in disarray all season and things aren't getting any better.

Still a rookie: Making his second start, quarterback Mike Glennon looked good at times. But his third-quarter interception, which came on an apparent miscommunication with wide receiver Tiquan Underwood, helped set up a touchdown that put the Eagles ahead for good.

Stock Watch, rising: Tight end Tim Wright quietly had a nice game. For the first time this season, the tight end was a factor in the passing game. Wright had seven catches for 91 yards.

Stock Watch, falling: The zone defense. The Bucs need to scrap it because it’s not working. Cornerback Darrelle Revis never should be asked to play zone defense.

History repeats itself: Nick Foles started at quarterback in place of an injured Michael Vick, for the second straight game, and led the Eagles to victory in Tampa.

What’s next: The Bucs play the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome next Sunday.

Observation deck: Panthers-Eagles

August, 15, 2013
8/15/13
10:21
PM ET

The Carolina Panthers better put in a hurry-up defense quickly.

That became apparent in Thursday night’s 14-9 preseason loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

With the defensive starters playing most of the first half, the Panthers struggled to stop Philadelphia’s fast-paced attack. The Eagles piled up 257 yards of total offense in the first half.

Carolina's defense was on its heels, reacting instead of being proactive, most of the night.

Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly’s scheme is unique, but the Panthers are going to face elements of it in the regular season. They have to play Atlanta (twice), a team that’s proficient in the no-huddle offense. They also have to face Seattle’s Russell Wilson and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, a pair of quarterbacks who can make things happen with their ability to run.

Things could have been even worse, but Carolina’s first defense was able to produce three turnovers to stop Philadelphia drives. But it’s pretty obvious the unit isn’t a finished product.

The Panthers have some work to do in getting ready for no-huddle offenses and mobile quarterbacks.

Some other quick observations on the Panthers:
  • It wasn’t all bad news for the defense. Cornerback Josh Norman had an interception on a Hail-Mary pass just before the end of the first half and cornerback Josh Thomas picked off Nick Foles early on. Veterans Drayton Florence and Captain Munnerlyn have been getting most of the first-team work in camp, but the interceptions by Norman and Thomas might put them in the mix for starting jobs.
  • I liked the fact the Panthers gave running back DeAngelo Williams 12 carries in the first half. I thought Williams was underutilized last season. He’s an explosive player and, if given enough chances in the regular season, Williams will make things happen.
  • Defensive end Greg Hardy produced a first-half sack. But give some of the credit to rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who got good penetration on the play.
  • Wide receiver Steve Smith is 34, but still going strong, largely because he runs such great routes.
  • Rookie Kenjon Barner might have hurt his chances at claiming future playing time as a return man by muffing a third-quarter punt return.
  • With receivers Domenik Hixon, Joe Adams and Armanti Edwards sitting out due to injuries, David Gettis and Ted Ginn Jr. made the most of increased opportunities. Gettis had five catches for 82 yards and Ginn had two catches for 39 yards.

NFC South afternoon update

December, 10, 2012
12/10/12
5:29
PM ET
I arrived back at NFC South Blog headquarters just a bit ago and there are a whole lot of odds and ends to catch up on from all around the division. Let’s take a rapid-fire look:

ATLANTA FALCONS

The team’s plans for a new stadium seemed to take another step forward as the Georgia World Congress Center Authority approved a non-binding term sheet that will provide the basis for further negotiation. There still likely will be some ups and downs, but both sides seem to be moving toward getting a deal done.

The Falcons held injured cornerback Asante Samuel out of Sunday’s game with Carolina even though he was on the active roster. Coach Mike Smith said Samuel could have played in an emergency situation. But the Falcons obviously were being cautious with the veteran. Smith said he expects Samuel to practice Wednesday. Smith wasn’t as optimistic about safety William Moore, who sat out Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Scott Fowler writes that Cam Newton’s 72-yard touchdown run against Atlanta should be on the list of the greatest plays in franchise history. I agree that Newton’s run was spectacular, but I’m not ready to declare it a pivotal moment in franchise history just yet. If, in hindsight, the play ends up helping Ron Rivera keep his job and the Panthers come back and do some great things next season, then the Newton run truly will be special.

The war of words between the Falcons and Panthers isn’t over even though the season series is. Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant reportedly said outspoken Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy and his teammates can “watch us in January’’. This rivalry always has simmered but it’s really heating up. Too bad former Carolina punter Todd Sauerbrun still isn’t in the league because he was a master at stirring the pot.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Bradley Handwerger writes that the Saints seem to have lost the aura of invincibility they’ve had for the past three seasons. That’s true. They’re back to being about the same team they were in 2007 and ’08. Assuming suspended coach Sean Payton gets his contract situation worked out, he's going to have to do some rebuilding next season.

A ruling by former NFL commissioner on the appeals of suspensions in the bounty scandal reportedly will be announce Tuesday.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Roy Cummings writes that Sunday marked the fourth time this season the Bucs have blown a fourth-quarter lead. But Sunday’s loss to Philadelphia is disconcerting for a team that had appeared to be on the rise. The previous lost fourth-quarter opportunities came against the Falcons, Giants and Redskins. Those are teams that are at good teams. The Eagles don’t even fall into that category.

Coach Greg Schinao said his decision to punt to Philadelphia near the end of Sunday’s game was not due to a lack of confidence in quarterback Josh Freeman and the offense. Schiano said he decided to take his chances with his defense against rookie quarterback Nick Foles, who ended up leading his team to a game-winning drive. I’d take my chances with Tampa Bay’s run defense, but the pass defense has been a completely different story. Even against a rookie quarterback, it wasn’t good enough.

One late addition here -- The Bucs just announced they have placed cornerback Myron Lewis on inured reserve and claimed guard Hayworth Hicks off waivers from Kansas City.

Wrap-up: Eagles 23, Buccaneers 21

December, 9, 2012
12/09/12
5:26
PM ET

Thoughts on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 23-21 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium:

What it means: This one was particularly painful for the Buccaneers in terms of how they lost and what it means. They had a 21-10 lead in the fourth quarter, but ended up losing on the last play of the game to one of the NFL’s worst teams. But it goes much deeper than that. The Bucs now are on a three-game losing streak, they’re 6-7 and their playoff hopes could be fading away.

Defensive collapse: The pass defense has been a problem all season, and that was only accentuated in this one. Philadelphia rookie quarterback Nick Foles threw for 381 yards and led two touchdown drives in the final 3:26.

Super letdown: The Buccaneers used this day to celebrate an early 10-year anniversary of their Super Bowl championship. Scores of players and coaches from that squad returned and the Bucs had a rare day in which their game was allowed to be shown on local television. But the current Bucs didn’t play anything close to championship football. The Buccaneers have made big strides this year, but they’re not going to consistently sell out their stadium the way they did in their glory years unless they start winning games like this.

What’s next: The Buccaneers play at New Orleans next Sunday.

Another round of Gruden's QB Camp

February, 23, 2012
2/23/12
1:22
PM ET
The NFC South may not have nearly as much of a vested interest in this as it did last year, but Gruden’s QB Camp is returning for a third season this spring.

Last year, Jon Gruden, the former Tampa Bay coach and current "Monday Night Football" analyst, had a fascinating session with Cam Newton. Their time in the film room gave us all plenty to talk about as we waited for the Carolina Panthers to select Newton at No. 1 overall.

This year, I don’t see any NFC South team taking a quarterback in the first round. But I do think you could see some NFC South quarterback moves later in the draft. Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson is similar to New Orleans’ Drew Brees in a lot of ways. I wouldn’t be all that surprised if the Saints took Wilson in the middle rounds and try to groom him as the heir apparent to Brees. There even has been a bit of a buzz that the Panthers could look at Wilson as a guy to complement Newton.

The Falcons and Buccaneers also could be keeping an eye out for potential backups in the draft.

Wilson’s session with Gruden will air April 11 at 5 p.m. ET on ESPNU.

The show will debut with Andrew Luck on March 31 at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN. The segment with Robert Griffin III will air at 9 p.m. ET on April 2 on ESPN. Kellen Moore will be featured April 12 at 5 p.m. ET on ESPNU. Kirk Cousins’ episode will be shown April 16 at 5 p.m. ET on ESPNU.

Case Keenum will be featured at 5 p.m. ET on April 17 on ESPNU. The segment on Brandon Weeden will air April 18 at 8 p.m. on ESPNU. Brock Osweiler will be featured April 19 at 5 p.m. ET on ESPNU.

A segment on Nick Foles will air April 23 at 5 p.m. ET on ESPNU and Ryan Tannehill will be featured April 24 at 5 p.m. ET on ESPNU.

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