Jan 4, 2014, 1:06 PM EDT
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.
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