NFL Team Report - Philadelphia Eagles - INSIDE SLANT
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 college 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."
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.
NFL Team Report - Philadelphia Eagles - NOTES, QUOTES
--Whether it's a job with the Philadelphia Eagles or another team, Michael Vick wants to play in the NFL next season.
The 33-year-old quarterback said Tuesday that he would like to start for a team in 2014 but would be willing to return to the Eagles as a backup to starter Nick Foles if no other jobs materialize during the offseason.
Vick suffered a hamstring injury in October and lost the Eagles' starting job to Foles. Vick finished the season with 1,215 passing yards, 306 rushing yards, five touchdown passes, three interceptions and two rushing scores in seven games.
Injuries have kept Vick from playing a full season since 2009.
"I don't worry about it," Vick said, according to CSNPhilly.com. "My skill set is still there, my arm is still there, my legs are still there, I'm still a playmaker, that's evident. I think at some point, I'll be playing somewhere."
Foles threw for 2,891 yards and 27 touchdowns with only two interceptions in 13 games. He added 221 rushing yards and three touchdowns while leading the Eagles to the NFC East title in his second year in the league.
"It all depends what happens, where I'm at in my career. Never rule it out," Vick said of a possible return to the Eagles next season. "But I'm not thinking of that right now. I'm not thinking about the future. I'm just thinking about doing whatever I can to help this team win a Super Bowl."
--The Eagles' dramatic turnaround in turnover differential was a major reason they managed to rebound from last season's 4-12 disaster and make the playoffs with a 10-6 record. They had a league-worst minus-24 turnover differential in 2012, including only 13 takeaways as opposed to 37 giveaways. This year, they are fourth in the league in turnover differential (plus-12) and have 31 takeaways and just 19 giveaways.
The 19 giveaways are the fewest by the Eagles since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.
"If you look at the numbers, they're really striking," Eagles head coach Chip Kelly said. "If you look at our 10 wins, and what our plus-minus ratio is, and then (look at) our six losses, you can see." The Eagles have a plus-18 turnover differential in their 10 wins and are minus-6 in their six losses. They are 9-1 this season when they have won the turnover battle, 1-5 when they lost it or were even.
--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."
Jones had a 56-yard punt out of his own end of the field late in last week's game against the Cowboys that helped flip field position.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Mychal is a great athlete. Sometimes he'll take a chance and sometimes it misses and sometimes it hits. He's done a great job. He's made a lot more plays for us than he hasn't. And he continues to get better at understanding leverage and concepts and where help is and where help isn't and how to play. And as we go along, Mychal is getting better and better at that." - Defensive coordinator Bill Davis on linebacker Mychal Kendricks
BY THE NUMBERS: 1 - The total number of fumbles by Eagles running backs this season in 466 combined touches.
NFL Team Report - Philadelphia Eagles - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
OFFICIAL FRIDAY INJURY REPORT
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
OUT: RB Pierre Thomas (chest).
QUESTIONABLE: LB Keyunta Dawson (calf).
PROBABLE: S Rafael Bush (ankle).
OUT: Julian Vandervelde (back)
QUESTIONABLE: Earl Wolff (knee)
PROBABLE: Colt Anderson (knee), WR Jason Avant (shoulder), CB Brandon Boykin (hip), LB Mychal Kendricks (knee).
--P Donnie Jones has had an outstanding regular season. He set a franchise record for punts inside the 20 (33) and has had just 12 of 45 punts returned in the past nine games.
--RB Bryce Brown has picked up his play in the past two games, rushing for 126 yards and two touchdowns in his last 11 carries.
--S Patrick Chung is the Eagles' biggest defensive liability. But with Earl Wolff still sidelined with a knee injury, and Kurt Coleman still not completely recovered from a hamstring injury, the Eagles have few other options but to keep playing him.
--RT Lane Johnson is the first Eagles first-round rookie to start every game since Corey Simon back in 2000.
--LG Evan Mathis had another outstanding year, but again didn't make the Pro Bowl. He is one of the league's four or five best interior linemen.
--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.
The Saints are fourth in the league in sacks per pass play. The Eagles, who are first in the league in rushing, will run the ball early and often against a Saints defense that is 28th in yards allowed per carry (4.8), which they hope will slow down the Saints' pass rush and give Nick Foles more time to throw. Defensively, the Eagles' top priority will be stopping dangerous tight end Jimmy Graham.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Eagles ILB Mychal Kendricks vs. Saints TE Jimmy Graham. Graham has a league-best 16 touchdown catches and is the only tight end with 85 or more catches (86) and 1,000-plus yards (1,215). Kendricks has the speed to stay with Graham, but is at an eight-inch size disadvantage.
--Eagles RT Lane Johnson vs. Saints OLB Junior Galette and DE Cam Jordan. Johnson has had a pretty good rookie season, but has given up a team-high 10 sacks and 40 hurries. Galette and Jordan, who line up on different sides, have combined for 24.5 sacks.
--Eagles RB LeSean McCoy v. Saints ILBs David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton. One of the Saints' top priorities will be trying to shut down the Eagles' inside zone runs. Ninteen of McCoy's last 82 carries have gone for double-digit yards.