Dennis Allen knew this week was going to give his Saints defense a unique challenge.
It is hard to make plays against a quarterback who is willing to throw the ball to the first guy he sees open, and even then, open is a relative term for Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles. He’ll throw the ball in the smallest of windows and often doesn’t like to keep it in his hands for more than two seconds.
Another week, another rematch as the Saints continue their march toward Atlanta and Super Bowl 53.
Three steps, quick read, throw. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
So the Saints defensive coordinator felt there were two keys to disrupting Foles and the Eagles offense this week. The first was to try and take away his first read and force him to look to the second or third guy. That would make him hold the ball longer and maybe give the Saints' pass rush a chance. Otherwise, Foles would be able to dink and dunk his way down the field and settle in rhythm.
The second key was to understand the defense was only going to be able to force Foles into his reads so many times, a point repeatedly proven during the Saints’ 20-14 win on Sunday as Foles got rid of the ball in less than two seconds on 12 plays.
“The thing for our defensive line is that we can't get impatient,” Allen said. “We've got to understand that he does a really good job of getting rid of the football, and don't get discouraged with the pass rush and keep going at it for 60 minutes.”
It took the Saints some time to settle in against Foles. He shredded the defense the first two drives, one read at a time. His first four passes of the game all came out of his hand in 2.4 seconds or less, which helped set up a 37-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Matthews following a play-action fake.
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On the next drive, it was more of the same, a series of quick passes kept the ball moving until he could take a shot to Alshon Jeffery down the left sideline for a gain of 30. It looked like Foles only made one read on the play, as it left his hand in 1.5 seconds. The play set the Eagles up Foles' keeper for another touchdown.
That was it.
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The Eagles offense was done being effective at that point. The Saints stuffed the quarterback into the pocket and everything that squeezed out due to the pressure exposed “Foles Magic” for what it is — a team with a pretty good quarterback who can win games when everything is working around him.
He completed 18 of 31 passes for 201 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. He was 2 for 7 for 54 yards on plays where he held the ball for 2.5 or more seconds, including 0 for 4 on passes that left his hands in three seconds or longer.
The point is, there wasn’t enough working for Foles or the Eagles on Sunday. That’s why the Philadelphia offense gained 151 yards on the first two drives and only 99 more. Marshon Lattimore answered the two early touchdowns with two interceptions, one of which sealed the game.
The New Orleans Saints needed someone, anyone, to spark a comeback from their fearful 14-0 deficit Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The pass rush staying patient and finding its way was significant in disrupting Foles. While the quarterback wanted to get the ball out quickly, there were times he was forced to do it even sooner than he wanted. The New Orleans front seven felt he struggled to identify where pressure was coming from, which caused him to throw off his back foot and to look over his shoulder.
It might sound weird to credit pressure considering New Orleans didn’t have any sacks, but you could see the impact during the game.
“After that first quarter, we got after him pretty well. I know the sack total doesn’t show it, but we forced some bad throws,” defensive end Alex Okafor said. “We ran a couple of pass-rush games, hit him with some fire zones to keep them on their toes. You just can’t let that frustrate you. Whenever the ball comes out quick, you can’t let that slow down your rush, because you never know when he’s going to hold it.”
The other difference was improved coverage. And that was all it took. There wasn’t a significant change in technique or approach. After allowing a 37-yard touchdown pass on the opening drive and a 30-yard reception on the next one, New Orleans locked in. A conversation about having tighter coverage at halftime helped hammer home the point.
The game started to turn in the first half when Lattimore intercepted a pass intended for tight end Zach Ertz, and it ended with him catching a pass that skipped out of Jeffery’s hands on a potential game-winning drive for Philadelphia. It was a big moment for Lattimore, who played well but had some ups and downs this year after being named the defensive rookie of the year last season.
“I always have to stay in his ear, and I tell him he’s capable of making those type of plays,” said wide receiver Michael Thomas, who went to Ohio State with Lattimore. “He’s that guy on defense. And as long as he stays focused and locks in on his assignment, the sky’s the limit. And that’s just a testament to him just not folding, not getting frustrated and staying in the game. I’m proud of him. He grew up today.”
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The Saints also were not fooled by any of the ploys the Eagles use to disguise their intentions on offense. Eli Apple helped with this. Playing for the Giants, he used to face the Eagles twice per season and had experience playing Philadelphia with Foles at quarterback. He joked, "They like to say they know me."
But even more than that, he knows what they want to do on offense and how they want to do it. His teammates already had a good understanding of this after seeing the Eagles earlier this year, but Apple's extensive knowledge was still a benefit, and he passed along some tips during the week.
“Knowing the routes,” Apple said. “They’re a concept-driven team. They’re always going to fix their concept and try to hide what they do with their motions, but we all did a great job of understanding what we were going to get as far as routes.”
There is no hiding what the Saints are on defense. This group can win games just as easily as the offense has in recent seasons. When everything was on the line Sunday, it was the defense that stepped up and got the job done.
“We be wanting the game on our backs, so when we (missed a field goal) on our last drive, we were good,” Lattimore said. “We stayed poised. We want it on us, so we got it done.”
There were two keys to making that happen. New Orleans nailed both.