While the Philadelphia Eagles walked out of their Christmas Eve loss to the Dallas Cowboys with reasons to keep their heads high and be proud, the loss was telling. They also haven’t secured the top seed in the NFC Playoffs yet, and now with two games remaining, it appears that there is work to do to work out a few kinks.
The New Orleans Saints are the Week 17 opponent. Naturally, it’s second nature that we should examine a few key matchups. How about Philly’s offense versus the Saints’ defense? That looks like a good place to start.
Despite owning nine losses, the Saints have a talented roster. Here’s how the Eagles match up.
P.J. Williams and Tyrann Mathieu are the likely starting safeties for the Saints and though Mathieu mostly plays on the weak side, he is often in the box at the snap, which could challenge both Jalen Hurts’ RPO game and the running game and short passing game of Gardner Minshew.
DeMario Davis will provide a challenge at middle linebacker, but the Saints are weak at outside linebacker. Zach Baun and D’Marco Jackson are on their injured reserve list, so the Eagles’ tight ends should have opportunities in the passing game.
Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Maye are currently recovering from injuries, and their gameday status is unspecified. If they are absent from the lineup, Isaac Yiadom and Alontae Taylor will likely earn the responsibility of limiting DeVonta Smith and Quez Watkins in the slot.
The biggest potential issue, matchup wise is the Saints’ defensive line versus the Philadelphia Eagles offensive line, especially now that we know the extent of Lane Johnson’s recent injury. Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport are two of the Saints’ best defensive linemen. They will likely be aligned as five to nine techniques, making their primary responsibility beating the Eagles’ offensive tackles in an attempt to create pressure. Here are a few recommended roster moves in light of each of these matchups.
Gardner Minshew’s admirable performance versus Dallas didn’t lead to an Eagles victory, and in some ways, that may have strengthened Jalen Hurts’ MVP candidacy. Being the second quarterback on the depth chart, Minshew is less familiar with the starters and often takes minimal snaps with them during practice. While another week of reps should help with that, the playbook will likely be trimmed.
The Eagles lost to Dallas for several reasons. Here are two. The Cowboys played like the game was more important to them, and Philly lacked attention to detail. While nothing we saw is unrepairable, there needs to be safeguards.
If Jalen Hurts can start, his ability to throw the deep ball outside the numbers could be a massive difference-maker against the Saints’ condensed pass defense. We’ll soon learn if the Eagles agree
Running Back / HBack / Wide Receiver
The New Orleans Saints both run a bunch of heavy boxes and use a bunch of lag technique. This is both good news and bad news for the Philadelphia Eagles’ run game.
On the one hand, a loaded box limits the available gaps in the running game; on the other hand, the lag technique allows the Eagles to use gap runs and outflank the defense. Thousand-yard rusher Miles Sanders thankfully excels at that scheme. Boston Scott and Kenneth Gainwell should also see reps, and the ball should be given to the player with the hot hand.
Against a loaded box, the Eagles can either read the force defenders, assuming that Jalen Hurts can start. If he doesn’t, Philadelphia should use more 12 personnel packages and give Zach Pascal, Jack Stoll, and Grant Calcaterra more run-blocking responsibilities.
For whatever reason, Quez Watkins was targeted five times in Week 16 while Dallas Goedert was only targeted three times. That can’t happen. Goedert is the better receiver and Watkins’ lack of aggressiveness in fighting for the ball at the catch point led to two of the Eagles’ four turnovers. We know Watkins can stretch the field. He shouldn’t be asked to win on in-breaking routes. He really should only be running seven, eight, and nine routes (corners, go routes, and post routes).
Grant Calcaterra and Jack Stoll have both shown promise as pass catchers. Increasing their involvement in the passing game could lead to favorable results. Both provide mismatches versus the Saints’ outside linebackers.
Moving forward, Watkins needs to have more of a limited role as a pure deep threat. Zach Pascal, Dallas Goedert, Jack Stoll, and Grant Calcaterra need to be targeted more often.
Despite his decision to delay surgery, Lane Johnson’s injury figures to keep him out of the lineup for the remainder of the regular season. That isn’t good news when Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport are coming to town. They will likely provide a challenge to the Philadelphia Eagles when they’re in pass protection.
Johnson is both an athletic run blocker and the best protecting right tackle in the league. There are two likely possibilities for replacing him: playing Andre Dillard at left tackle and moving Jordan Mailata to right tackle or starting Jack Driscoll at right tackle.
Coach Jeff Stoutland is the number one offensive line coach in the league and this unit is both incredibly deep and incredibly versatile. That being said, the best players should be started at their best positions.
According to Pro Football Focus, Andre Dillard has had the best performances as a pass protector – at left guard in three games (84.7 average PBLK grade). Last season, Dillard played in eight games and averaged a PBLK grade of 71.7. Dillard played at left tackle in each of those games. As such, Dillard is +13 at left guard relative to left tackle in terms of his PFF grades.
Jordan Mailata has started at left tackle in 14 games this season. He has crafted an average PBLK grade of 69.9 as a result.
He started at left tackle for 14 games last season and earned an average PBLK grade of 83.8. During two of his starts, Week 5 and Week 6, he started at right tackle. He was graded at 67.5 and 77.2 respectively. What may be even more impressive is Mailata’s right tackle average last season is close to the average of all of his starts at left tackle this season.
Jack Driscoll has played at left tackle and right tackle this season averaging a PBLK rating of 49.15 and 59.0 respectively. Last season, he started nine games at right guard and right tackle. During his lone game at right tackle, he received a PBLK grade of 69.7. In his games at right guard, he averaged a PBLK grade of 65.95.
Based on the numbers, Jordan Mailata’s best fit is at left tackle, Jack Driscoll’s best fit is actually at right guard, and Andre Dillard’s best fit is at left guard, not left tackle. As you’re well aware, the Eagles are set at left guard and right guard with Landon Dickerson and Isaac Seumalo respectively.
Mailata and Driscoll have both played right tackle and Mailata has performed better there. While it’s likely better to start Mailata at left tackle and Driscoll at right tackle for the sake of continuity, the numbers suggest that Dillard should start at left tackle and that Mailata should start on the right side (if you’re into PFF’s stat engine that is).
We will see what the Eagles staff elects to do in response to where they are from an injury standpoint. They’ve truly been challenged by injuries as of late, but all of that pales in comparison to what’s now most important, beating the Saints on Sunday.