This "Monday Night Football" matchup may have had all the looks of a playoff preview a few months back, but with the New Orleans Saints upended by the bounty scandal, and the Philadelphia Eagles upended by just about everything else, Monday night's game more closely resembles that part in a bad kung-fu movie where the two protagonists try to get to their feet after absorbing a series of body blows.
The 3-4 Eagles have fewer excuses for their down season than do the 2-5 Saints, but neither team could be considered anything but a disappointment so far. To the degree that desperation makes for great football (which it often does), we could be in for a real live one.
When the Eagles have the ball
There's been all sorts of drama regarding the futures of Andy Reid and Michael Vick, but when you strip away the talk about benched quarterbacks, potentially fired coaches, and players-only meetings, what you're left with is that Philly's offense isn't the team's biggest problem these days. Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg have scaled Vick's deep-ball responsibilities back, and it's worked to a degree -- Vick completed 88 of 155 passes (a 56.8 percent completion rate) for 1,146 yards, four touchdowns, and six interceptions in September, and turned that around pretty well in October -- 69 of 111 (62.2 percent) for 677 yards, five touchdowns, and just two picks. His yards per attempt dropped from 7.39 to 6.10, but that's the nature of the beast when you attempt risk management.
Vick's targets have been banged up, his offensive line is not set up to protect a mobile quarterback who likes to break the pocket to make plays, and the implementation of running back LeSean McCoy is still a work in progress. McCoy gained 384 rushing yards on 81 carries in the first month of the season, and 120 yards on 46 carries in the second. The Eagles go heavy single-back, opposing defenses know that they want to throw the ball a lot, and as a result of schematic conceit (as well as Vick's own risky playing style), he's the most pressured, hurried, and hit quarterback in the league. That's OK if you're making big plays as a result, but in a pared-down offense, you'd expect better protection.
If there's one reason for encouragement in the Eagles' camp, it's that they're facing a defense that is just about perfectly ill-suited to content with what Philly likes to do. The Saints rank dead last in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics against the pass, they're not generating consistent pass pressure, they're the worst defense in the NFL against No. 1 receivers, running backs, and tight ends, and new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's schemes aren't working very well at all with the personnel he's got. If Vick can't get things going against a defense well-known for collapsing against the pass, one can only imagine what a circus Philly talk radio will be Tuesday morning.
When the Saints have the ball
If you go back and look at the 30-17 beatdown the Atlanta Falcons put on the Eagles the Sunday before last (one of those situations where the game was not as close as the score indicates), you'll see that the defense is the unit that has let the Eagles down more than any other of late. Reid fired longtime friend Juan Castillo and put former secondary coach Todd Bowles in charge of his defense, which was ironic in that the Falcons' receivers made Bowles' defense look absolutely silly. The Eagles bit hard on all manner of screens, throwing as many as four defenders at stud receiver Julio Jones on underneath stuff and leaving huge patches of the field wide open for Matt Ryan's other targets.
The Saints' offense presents a different set of challenges. Atlanta runs route combinations, but its offense is based on iso routes that let its superstars get open with talent. With or without Sean Payton in charge, New Orleans pressures opposing defenses with a dizzying array of combo routes that require great discipline to counter. The Denver Broncos had that discipline when they limited Drew Brees to 213 passing yards on 22 completions. The Eagles do not. What the Eagles do have is the fact that they will not have to deal with all-purpose running back Darren Sproles, who's out with a broken hand. Sproles is the NFL's most efficient and effective receiving back per FO's metrics, and his absence will be felt.
The key for the Eagles will be to keep tight end Jimmy Graham under control, deal with New Orleans' multiple targets and routes. Oh, yeah -- there's also the small matter of putting pressure on Brees, which is no easy task even if your defense can bring it in the pass rush department. As the Eagles have a grand total of two sacks in their last four games, that's a bit of an issue. Pierre Thomas will get Sproles' snaps at running back, the Saints are due for a comeback, and as long as Spagnuolo can dial up a few interesting blitzes, the Saints should be able to hold off their guests in this Battle of the Dysfunctions.
Pick: Saints 31, Eagles 24
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