The Eagles started hot in New Orleans, jumping out to a quick 14-0 lead in the first quarter. Nick Foles completed 8 of his first 9 passes for 113 yards and a touchdown. But something happened on the way to Foles improbably leading the Eagles to their second straight NFC Championship Game. Saints Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen changed his approach, and this helped settle down the defense.
The Eagles’ early success largely came against man coverage. Philadelphia used a pick play to get Zach Ertz open for 11 yards on their first 3rd down. Four plays later, Jordan Matthews beat P.J. Williams (who stopped running with the ball in the air) in man coverage for a 37-yard touchdown pass.
On Philly’s next drive, their second touchdown was set up by a 30-yard back-shoulder throw to Alshon Jeffery against Marshon Lattimore. It was cover-3 zone, but Lattimore was locked in 1-on-1 coverage with Jeffery on the backside. For all intents and purposes, their matchup was man coverage.
The Eagles started their third drive with yet another completion against man, this time a 14-yard pass to Jeffery, who was again matched on Lattimore. The Saints then adjusted their approach. Two plays later, the game changed.
On this play, you can see that the Saints rotated from a 1-deep-safety look to a 2-deep-safety look right before the snap.
It turned out that they were playing Tampa-2 zone coverage. They also dropped a defensive lineman out and only rushed three. The four defenders in the middle of the field took away Foles’ first read as he initially looked to the right.
With his first read taken away, the Saints’ pass rush had time to apply a little pressure. Foles had to move right as he scanned the field. He saw tight end Zach Ertz streaking down the far sideline with a step on cornerback Marshon Lattimore.
Foles was a little late, and as a result, he underthrew the pass for an interception.
Lattimore did a great job here of reading and reacting to the Eagles’ route combination. He locked onto Ertz, realizing the deep safety was occupied by the #2 inside vertical route, instead of just sitting in his zone. The interception seemed to settle the entire Saints team down.
The majority of New Orleans’ coverage the rest of the way was zone. Saints DBs did a good job of getting their hands on receivers near the line of scrimmage to re-route them and disrupt the timing of the passing game.
You can see an example on the below 3rd-down. Here, the Saints played quarters coverage. Keep your eyes on P.J. Williams at the bottom of the screen.
Williams re-routed Nelson Agholar, disrupting the timing of Foles’ initial read. This gave the pass rush time to apply pressure and force Foles to get rid of the ball.
After his hot start, Foles finished the game 10-22 for 88 yards and 2 interceptions. While the Saints’ defense played great down the stretch, their offense played a major role in keeping the Eagles off the field and out of rhythm. After the interception, the Eagles only ran 26 more plays. The Saints ran 60. During that stretch, the Saints possessed the ball for 32 minutes and 38 seconds, compared to just 10 minutes and 57 seconds for the Eagles.
The Saints haven’t been blowing teams out of the water with their offense like they were in mid-season. Their defense, instead, has been paving the way to victory. They’ll need to be on top of their game against Sean McVay’s complex offense in the NFC Championship Game.
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