Kendricks1

Fascinating individual matchup in Saints vs. Eagles Saturday night… Kendricks vs. Jimmy Graham..

I sat out on my deck alone tonight (Friday morning, 1/3/14) to get a feel for the weather conditions the Saints and the Eagles will be dealing with in a night game at the Linc that kicks off at 8:10 P.M. EST on Saturday….

Man, it is cold and wet… I guess the wind-chill factor will put game time temperature at something close to 10 degrees F. as the current Nor'easter prevails over the East Coast…

But in actuality, the enclosed stadium environment will feel more like 30 degrees F. at field level during the game… so no big whoop. Heck, in my own playing days, that would be ideal climate conditions… no worries about sweating out precious electrolytes or cramping up in despicable humidity.

So throw out the whole conspiracy theory about the Saints being a dome team that can't handle cold weather. That's garbage… in fact, if you go down the entire Eagles roster, most of our guys are from southern or western climates.  The "cold-weather" advantage is a myth.

Which brings us to the real matter at hand— individual matchups.

My main focus today is matching up the Saints' superb tight end Jimmy Graham with our own precocious ILB Mychal Kendricks.

Both are athletic and charismatic … it's a matchup made in Hollywood— kinda like Elvis vs. Fabian.

But football talent and in-game sophistication will tell the tale.

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).

Graham was drafted by the Saints out of Miami in 2010 in the 3rd round.

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."

Enter another pretty good athlete— the Eagles' versatile young linebacker Mychal Kendricks.

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 played pretty well all things being relative to 2012, 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 the Eagles 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.  He may be the Eagles'  X-Factor on Saturday night whenever the vaunted New Orleans defense rises up to stymie the Birds' offensive attack.

"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."

–Safety 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.

–Safety/ST 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.

Looking over the Eagles' planned offensive attack against the Saints' defense—–

If New Orleans' fourth-ranked defense is vulnerable in one area, it is stopping the run.

The Saints ranked 19th in that area during the regular season, yielding 111.6 yards per game.

When they open the playoffs Saturday night in Philadelphia, they'll have to contend with LeSean McCoy, the NFL's top rusher, and a couple of capable backups who help form the NFL's top running game.

"They have a fantastic running back," Saints coach Sean Payton said of the Eagles. "They do a great job with misdirection, creating those running lanes and really keeping you off balance defensively."

The Eagles have averaged 160 yards rushing per game. McCoy rushed for 1,607 yards and nine TDs this season. Bryce Brown has rushed for 314 yards and Chris Polk has been impressive when given the chance, averaging 8.9 yards on 11 carries.

"Our running back situation is outstanding," Philadelphia offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "Obviously, we have a starter, but when we put Bryce and Chris in there, they have done a really, really good job. They both can run the ball, they both catch the ball well and they certainly both can pass protect."

Saints defensive players heap praise upon Philadelphia's ground game, but also aren't shy about expressing confidence they can contain it.

Asked if the Saints should be worried about what looks like a statistical mismatch between Eagles rushers and Saints defenders, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said, "No," without hesitation.

"We had a couple of bad games that made that (yards rushing allowed) number a little skewed, but other than that we do a great job versus the run," Lofton said.

Indeed, some of the Saints' individual results back Lofton up. The Saints allowed only 88 yards rushing in a victory over Buffalo, which ranked second in the NFL in rushing, and only 81 yards in a win over San Francisco, which ranked third in rushing.

"We face elite talent every week and sometimes you have missteps," defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "You're not going to be perfect on every play, and that's what we've got to do for the playoffs. We have to try to be perfect."

Saints coach Sean Payton emphasized that statistics can be misleading, and noted as an example that one of the reasons the Eagles rank last in passing defense is because they've led a number of games, forcing teams to pass more to try to catch up.

"There's a couple of things that are misleading" about the Saints' overall run defense statistics, Payton said, adding that he's viewed New Orleans' run defense as pretty good over the last half of the season.

"This is a unique offense, though, in the type of runs you're getting compared to maybe a more conventional run list that you might see on a week-to-week basis," Payton added of the Eagles. "Finding your gaps and being on top of where the runner is, all those things are important."

Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette called McCoy "a beast" and "right now the best back in the NFL."

Galette said outside pass rushers like himself would have to contain McCoy somewhat like they attempt to do against mobile quarterbacks, and force him to run inside against stout defensive tackles Akiem Hicks and Brodrick Bunkley.

"If he breaks contain then he's gone," Galette said.

He added that stopping Philadelphia's ground game would be critical both in Saturday night's game and going forward, should the Saints advance.

"If we stop them, that's going to boost our confidence through the roof, knowing that whoever we play the next week is not going to be a better running team than they are," Galette said.

Notes: Pierre Thomas missed a second straight practice with a chest injury. Payton said the injury occurred during last Sunday's victory over Tampa Bay, but he did not specify whether it was likely to prevent Thomas from playing Saturday night. Payton said that in the even Thomas could not play, he had confidence the running game would be in good shape with Mark Ingram, who has averaged 4.9 yards per carry, and Khiry Robinson. "When you look at what Mark's done, what Khiry's done, we've got good depth there," Payton said. … S Rafael Bush (ankle) was limited in practice.

Hey, I am an Eagles phan through and through and I have the battle scars to prove it…  but more and more I am sensing the impending Battle of the Bulge.  If we win this game over the Saints, it could be one of those deals where the winning general says: "Another victory like this, and we are finished"…  or sumlin like that. This game feels like both sides will be exhausted at the final gun. And maybe that's the way playoff football should be…

 

Thomas Jackson

About Thomas Jackson

Jax Sports Media has been reporting on NFL teams in the mid-Atlantic region since 2006. Thomas Jackson is its senior writer. Tom started covering the Philadelphia Eagles for the MVN Network in 2007. In 2009 he joined the Bloguin Network. He now also covers the Baltimore Ravens.

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