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Kendricks key to Eagles' plan to contain Graham

The SportsXchange

PHILADELPHIA -- If the Philadelphia Eagles hope to beat the New Orleans Saints in the first round of the playoffs on Saturday night, they are going to have to find a way to slow down the Saints' passing game, and in particular, tight end Jimmy Graham.

The 6-foot-7, 265-pound Graham, a former collegiate basketball player, was the most prolific pass-catching tight end in the league this season, and had the most touchdown catches (16) of anyone at any position in the league. And he was the only tight end to top 85 receptions (86) and 1,000 yards (1,215).

For most of the season, the Eagles have done a good job against opposing tight ends. In their first 14 games, tight ends had just 58 receptions for 712 yards and two touchdowns against the Eagles.

But in the last two games - wins over the Chicago Bears and the Dallas Cowboys - that changed. The Bears' Martellus Bennett had five catches for 85 yards against the Eagles. Last week, the Cowboys' Jason Witten, who had just four catches for 48 yards in the first game against the Eagles in mid-October, had 12 catches for 135 yards in Sunday's 24-22 division-clinching win by the Eagles. And backup tight end Gavin Escobar had a 17-yard touchdown catch thanks mainly to a busted coverage by Philadelphia.

"(Graham) is the No. 1 target they have and he's been their most consistent target," Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "He catches everything thrown near him. They move him all over the place, so it's tough to practice and get a beat on how to help guys on him."

Second-year linebacker Mychal Kendricks has drawn a lot of the tight end coverage responsibilities. He's an extremely athletic player with good speed and Pro Bowl potential and notched his third interception of the season Sunday while covering Witten.

But he's only 5-11, some eight inches shorter than Graham. The Eagles likely will give him some help with a safety or a corner depending on where Graham lines up, which is all over the place. But since rookie safety Earl Wolff injured his knee earlier this season, the safety position has been the Eagles' Achilles heel in pass coverage. Nate Allen has play pretty well, but the Eagles usually play him deep as a single safety.

Patrick Chung has really struggled. He gave up a touchdown last week when he missed a tackle on Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant in the middle of the field after being left alone on him on a zero blitz.

"I think we have been good at times and struggled at times," Davis said of the job his unit has done on opposing tight ends. "Like everything, the talent level of the tight end that's coming at you, how much I help on the tight end with a call or I don't, depending on how many weapons they have or the situation. ... sometimes I give a lot of help, sometimes I don't, and I think it's a moving target."

--The Saints are 8-0 at home this season, but just 3-5 on the road. That and the fact that the temperatures could drop into the teens Saturday night and Drew Brees never has beaten a team with a winning record when the temperature has been below 40 degrees are reasons for optimism for the Eagles this week.

But they are not acknowledging that they have any advantage by playing at home in frigid weather.

"We are playing the New Orleans Saints and we were going to get their best, and we just happen to be playing them at home in front of our crowd, which we think is a neat deal," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said.

--Punter Donnie Jones has turned out to be one of the Eagles' more significant free agent pickups. Jones is ninth in the league in net average (40.5) and has had just 12 of his past 45 punts returned. He set a franchise record this season for punts inside the 20 with 33.

"I think he's really underrated," Chip Kelly said. "I think Donnie, all year long, has just ... he's been outstanding and I don't know why he doesn't get enough credit."

--S Earl Wolff, who has missed five of the last six games with a knee injury, is questionable for Saturday's playoff game against the Saints.

--S Colt Anderson has missed the last two games with a knee injury. Anderson is one of the Eagles' top special teams players. It's too early to guess on his status for Saturday's game.

SERIES HISTORY: 29th meeting. Eagles lead the series, 16-12. The Eagles have lost four of the past five meetings, including a 28-13 loss last November. They have met twice in the postseason, in the divisional playoffs in '06 with the Saints winning, 27-24, and in a wild-card game in '92 that the Eagles won, 36-20.
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