Seeking their first win outdoors in nearly three months, the Saints are changing up several things as they prepare to visit the Philadelphia Eagles for a wildcard playoff game Saturday night — from what they wear and drink on game day to what they eat the night before.
But at least one thing that has been constant for the Saints (11-5) under coach Sean Payton hadn’t changed Wednesday: His players were hyper-vigilant about giving Philadelphia (10-6) any bulletin-board material, even when discussing the Eagles’ last-ranked pass defense.
The Eagles surrender a league-high 289.8 yards through the air per game. But if Saints quarterback Drew Brees and his wide receivers are salivating at the thought of going to work against that unit, they’ve been more tight-lipped about it than they’ve been about the spicier Beefy Mac they’ll be eating on the road, where they lost five of their last six outings in the regular season and have never won a playoff game.
“When you see a stat like that, you’ve got to look at ... how they’re still winning games, and they’re doing a great job of forcing turnovers,” said rookie receiver Kenny Stills, who has caught five touchdowns and leads the NFL with 20 yards per grab. “(They) can have a million yards (allowed) in a game, but if they’re getting turnovers, (opponents) aren’t scoring.”
Though it won’t ruffle any feathers, that statement is factual. Only seven teams this regular season had more interceptions than Philadelphia (19). Only four teams had more than the Eagles’ 12 fumble recoveries. And the Eagles’ five takeaways in the red zone were the third-most in the NFL.
That has helped Philadelphia go from ceding about 302.6 net passing yards per game in the first half of the season — when the Eagles went 3-5 — to allowing 277.3 in the second part. That improvement wasn’t enough to rescue the Eagles from the basement of the league’s pass-defense ranking, but it helped them close the year 7-1.
It also helped the Eagles hold opponents to fewer than 21 points in 12 games, tied for third-most in the NFL with New Orleans, whose defense is ranked fourth overall.
“We’re going to have to be as disciplined as possible — making sure we’re getting our depth on routes, making sure that, as soon as we get the ball, it’s like holding on to gold,” receiver Lance Moore said. “It’ll be a ‘teammates’ hopes and dreams are in your hands, so you have to guard it with your life’-type scenario.”
Anything less than that, and Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks is liable to recover a fumble, which he did a league-leading four times.
Aside from Kendricks, the Eagles defense also has gotten a wealth of turnovers from nickelback Brandon Boykin. He’s tied for second in the NFL with six interceptions, the most crucial of which came off a Kyle Orton pass with less than two minutes left in Philadelphia’s 24-22 win over Dallas to clinch the NFC East title (and a playoff spot) Sunday night.
Boykin also has accounted for three of Philadelphia’s takeaways inside their 20, picking off two passes as well as causing a fumble that the Eagles scooped up.
“When they have to make a play, they make a play,” said Saints receiver Robert Meachem, who topped New Orleans in yards per reception at 20.3 but didn’t qualify for the league lead because he had just 16 catches.
All of that shows the Eagles’ pass defense may prove to be a stauncher opponent than it seems at first glance for Brees, who was second in the NFL with 39 touchdowns and 5,162 passing yards. Yet only 12 of those touchdowns — and nine of his 12 interceptions — came away from the Superdome.
“They fly around and make all kinds of plays,” he said. “I really just look at this last half of the season, and they have played tremendous.”