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Friday, January 3, 2014
Matchups to watch: Saints at Eagles

By Zachary Rodgers

The New Orleans Saints travel north to take on the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday night. If Drew Brees and the Saints hope to return to the Super Bowl, they will have to win three consecutive road games.

The Saints were winless in three road games against playoff teams during the regular season.

For the Saints to keep up with the fast-paced Eagles offense, New Orleans will need another elite performance from their top playmaker.

Jimmy Graham vs. Eagles coverage

Jimmy Graham’s dominance this season raises several questions for the Philadelphia defense. Graham led the NFL with 16 touchdown receptions this season, the second-most by a tight end in a season and only the third time a tight end has led the league in touchdown receptions.

The Eagles had been about league-average defending tight ends this season prior to Sunday night, when Jason Witten hauled in 12 catches for 135 yards. Both numbers were easily the most the Eagles allowed to an opposing tight end this season.

Expect the Eagles to rotate linebackers and defensive backs into coverage responsibilities against Graham. Graham’s 26 receptions and 358 yards when split out wide were the most by a tight end in a season since 2008.

Eagles offensive line vs. Saints front seven

Lost among the great performances by LeSean McCoy, Nick Foles and DeSean Jackson has been the dominance of the Eagles offensive line this season. The Eagles averaged a league-best 3.6 yards before contact per rush. No other team finished with an average above 3.2 this season.

The Saints allowed 4.6 yards per rush, the fifth-most in the league this season. New Orleans particularly struggled against the zone read, allowing 5.6 yards per rush on such plays. The Eagles had nearly twice as many zone-read runs (304) as any other team during the regular season.

Saints running backs vs. Eagles linebackers

While the big guys up front help lead the way for the Eagles on offense, the Saints rely on two of their smallest offensive players to run past opposing defenses.

The Saints incorporate their running backs into the passing game as much as any team in the league. Led by Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, New Orleans totaled the most receptions and yards after the catch by a team’s running backs since 2006.

A lot of the credit belongs to Thomas, who filled in for an injured Sproles to post career highs in receptions (77) and receiving yards (513). In fact, Thomas led all running backs in receptions this season.

Either Thomas or Sproles has led the league in running back receptions each of the last three seasons.

The Eagles held opposing running backs to one receiving touchdown this season, tied for the fewest in the league. Over the final five weeks of the regular season, only the Lions allowed fewer receptions to opposing running backs.