When the Philadelphia Eagles host the New Orleans Saints on Sunday for their second home game of the year, things will be tense. Both teams are 1-3, and even in terrible divisions like the NFC East and NFC South, four losses in five weeks will probably mean the end of the road for the losing team.
The Eagles have the dubious distinction of being among the cellar dwellers in the NFL, and with that distinction comes heat. A whopping 12 teams are 1-3 or worse (hi Detroit!), and one coach has already been fired (hi Joe Philbin!). Sunday presents a very real chance for the Eagles to crawl back into the division race, and to do it, they should look to their fellow basement dwellers for some tips on what not to do.
Run. The. Ball.
Like the winless Lions and last-place Browns, the Eagles have had a difficult time running the football this season. Unlike the Browns and Lions, however, the Eagles have $11.6 million invested in running backs this year alone (for comparison, those other two teams will spend a combined $7.7 million on runners this year).
From a statistical standpoint, the Eagles should have the opportunity to get the ground game moving this week. The Saints are ranked 27th in rushing defense, allowing 123 yards on the ground per game. And even advanced metrics agree - the Saints rank dead last in defensive DVOA through the first four games.
But games aren't played on paper. The Eagles barely able to run the ball last week against Washington's third-ranked run defense, and when they did, not much happened. To be fair, the Eagles were smart to attack through the air, and they were (mostly) rewarded. But even still, giving a combined 18 carries to your big-budget backfield seems like a waste of resources.
It's not all on the backs, either. The offensive line has been absolutely ravaged by injury. At this point it's still difficult to tell which offensive linemen will start Sunday, and in what combination they will line up. Still, the Eagles need opposing defenses to at least respect the run game enough to bring a safety into the box, opening up better passing opportunities, but that hasn't happened so far this season. Banged up line or not, this week could present some chances for the Eagles' backs.
Get the quarterback on the ground
Guess what the Eagles and Miami Dolphins have in common - no, it's not that their coach has been fired/has gone back to college. It's that neither has been able to bring down the quarterback. In fairness to the Eagles, no one has been as futile as the Dolphins and their whopping one sack. But the Eagles' six sacks on the year has them tied with teams like Chicago, Houston and Dallas.
And according to advanced metrics, the numbers seem to be about in line with what we've seen. Per Pro Football Focus, Brandon Graham is among the best pass rushing outside linebackers (ranked eighth among all OLBs who played at least 50 percent of their team's snaps), while Connor Barwin ranks 20th of 23.
The picture doesn't get much rosier along the defensive line. Of the 29 players who have played at least half the snaps, the only Eagle who qualifies is Fletcher Cox - and he ranks 21st. Obviously, he's drawing double teams on almost every play and isn't necessarily being asked to rush the passer, so at least that ranking is understandable.
A lack of pass rush has hurt the Eagles this season. Last week the Eagles only registered one sack and only two QB hurries. Kurt Cousins was rarely troubled all day, and was able to lead Washington on a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter. But here's the thing - Drew Brees is not Kurt Cousins.
Last season, Brees was among the best in the business when under pressure. According to PFF, Brees was sixth in the league in completions when under pressure last year (56.2 percent), and had an accuracy percentage (which measures whether the ball was on-target and catchable) of 73.3, second only to Teddy Bridgewater.
This year, however, Brees is only completing 46.2 percent of his completed passes. Some of that may be related to his rotator cuff injury, and the Eagles would certainly be foolish to expect anything less than vintage Brees on Sunday. The Saints offense is struggling, which means the outcome of the game could rest on Brees' shoulders. The Eagles would be wise to make sure those shoulders spend some time lying on the field at the Linc.
Play to your strengths
Speaking of New Orleans' offensive struggles, the Saints currently rank 28th in rushing offense, but fourth in passing. That means they're going to pass the ball against an Eagles secondary that has looked improved over the past two weeks. But as much improvement as we've seen, it's still unclear who will be lining up against the Saints' receivers. Byron Maxwell has not practiced this week, and Mychal Kendricks will likely miss another week as well. And on top of all that, Brees is the probably most talented quarterback the Eagles have faced this season.
So how do the Eagles combat this? They play to their strengths. That means running to set up the pass, and letting Sam Bradford try airing it out again. As we mentioned before, the Saints defense is abysmal against the run. If the Eagles can find an Awareness Cone large enough to start at right tackle, the Eagles should be able to pick up some yardage.
And that means Bradford should have some opportunities in the passing game. Even with an awful first half against Washington, Bradford played his best game as an Eagle last Sunday. He threw for three touchdowns, and looked like he was able to finally hit guys in stride, something that had been frustratingly absent through the first three games.
New Orleans is giving up 258 passing yards per game this season, which ranks them 20th in the league (or five spots ahead of the Eagles). But that doesn't quite tell the whole story. Rob Ryan's defense gave up 315 passing yards to Cam Newton, 207 to Jameis Winston and 246 to Brandon Weeden. It's hard to believe, but one could make the argument that Bradford is the best quarterback the Saints will have faced to this point, too.
Consistency on offense is key
Then again, the Eagles will need to be able to sustain offense if they want to hang on Sunday. Like the Jaguars and 49ers, the Eagles have been unable to really do anything close to what they've wanted on offense. Amazingly, their 280 yards of rushing offense is only the fourth-worst in the league, while the pass game's 896 yards is ranked 25th.
The Saints defense will provide opportunities, but it's going to be up to the Eagles to capitalize. In addition to the injuries, the Eagles continue to show the ability to get out of their own way. The team has 31 penalties, including one last week that negated a touchdown, and already have double-digit drops.
Meanwhile, the quarterback position has been the definition of inconsistent. Bradford has completed 60.7 percent of his passes, which ranks him above players like Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Ryan Mallet. Injuries play a large part in the offense's struggles. But injuries are a part of the game, and the Eagles will still need to execute when they have the chance.
Two teams enter Lincoln Financial Field at 1-3. Only one will leave with a 2-3 record and a shred of remaining hope. If the Eagles want to win, they should consider taking some tips from a bunch of losers.