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What the analytics tell us about the Saints and Eagles

Numbers, trends, and what it all means...

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NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

We’re one day away from the defending Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles’ chance at revenge. We know the story: the Eagles were shellacked, slapped up and shell-shocked in their 48-7 blow-out loss to the New Orleans Saints in Week 11.

Digging into the numbers that got us here, I scoured multiple analytics sites to gain a better understanding of the trends and forces lying underneath the surface in the rematch. What follows is what I found in my journey.

THREADING THE NEEDLE

The Divisional Round showdown features two of the top quarterbacks in Next Gen Stats’ xCOMP differential. First off, what does that even mean? I’ll let the folks at Next Gen explain that:

Expected Completion Percentage (xCOMP): Using a passer’s Completion Probability on every play, determine what a passer’s completion percentage is expected to be.

Completion Percentage Above Expectation (+/-): A passer’s actual completion percentage compared to their Expected Completion Percentage.

Drew Brees ranks 1st at +7.4%, which is head and shoulders above the crowd. Nick Foles comes in at 2nd with a fantastic +5.7%.

Brees performs so highly in this category due to his elite placement. According to Pro Football Focus, Brees has been the most accurate quarterback for two years running. That’s reflected in their “Adjusted Completion %” metric. Foles’ comes in at a respectable 6th, just behind teammate Carson Wentz, which further highlights the Eagles’ embarrassment of riches at quarterback for the last two years.

Brees stellar completion percentage takes another uptick when working play-action concepts, where his 142 QB Rating leads the league. Last week Chicago Bears’ quarterback Mitch Trubisky was a perfect 5 for 5 using play-action against the Eagles.

QUICK GAME

On the year, Foles is tied for the lowest Intended Air Yards which will naturally inflate any completion percentage. He’s also second to last in Air Yards to the Sticks (-2.5), meaning he’s delivering short-to-medium range throws in long situations and letting his playmakers pick up the rest. This isn’t to knock Foles. As noted, he deserves credit for ballooning his numbers with his high xCOMP differential.

The context for why Foles is throwing so short is important. There’s no quicker time-to throw offense in the NFL than the Eagles have been Week 14. By design, Foles should be throwing shorter, which also helps keep him clean. This is a credit to the coaching staff and Foles’ pre-snap mental processing.

The Eagles need to stick with the quick game to continue their success. According to Pro Football Focus, when Foles doesn’t release the ball within 2.50 seconds, his QB Rating takes a nose dive from 5th to 34th of 39. His makes happen when the initial set of reads aren’t there and he’s forced to throw out of rhythm.

What helps keep Foles under that 2.50 mark is his ability to dissect defenses pre-snap, especially when identifying pre-snap matchups against man coverage.

The question posed by Keegan Abdoo, an employee at Next Gen, in the above tweet is a good one. In light of the evidence, will the Saints play more zone coverage against a quarterback that thrives against man? That would go against the grain of what they want to be as a defense since acquiring Eli Apple, as he noted with data from Sports Info Solutions.

GO DEEP, ALSHON

If Foles does see man coverage and a single high safety in the pre-snap look, chances are high that he’ll take a shot. That’s despite the Eagles being a low frequency deep shot team with Foles. My co-host on The QB Scho Show, Mark Schofield, recently noticed this aspect of the offense for Pro Football Weekly.

One thing to watch is the connection between Foles and Alshon Jeffery. On a few occasions during the past few weeks, if Foles identifies Cover 1 press coverage from the secondary in the pre-snap phase of a play, he’ll look to Jeffery on a vertical route.

Schofield noted there were times were Foles recognized the coverage and gave Jeffery a quick hand gesture. This lets Jeffery knows it’s time to eat. If you’re wondering what that hand signal has looked like, it’s mainly been an open palm to his side.

Against the 32nd ranked DVOA defense, the Eagles will have opportunities to let it fly, but they’ll need to take them. Football Outsiders recently noted a particular matchup the Eagles could exploit, which is in addition to my suggestion that the Eagles target the grabby Eli Apple.

“The Eagles only took one deep shot with [Alshon Jeffery] against [Marshon Lattimore], preferring to go to Golden Tate and Nelson Agholor when they did throw deep. I’d expect that to change this time around; Lattimore ranks just 75th among qualified cornerbacks in success rate and allowed a terrible 10.4 yards per pass attempt on balls headed in his direction this season, so this is a matchup the Eagles could win.” – Bryan Knowles, NFC Divisional Round Preview 2019 - Football Outsiders

LANE VS. CAM

The analytics site are in mutual agreement on this: Lane Johnson had one of his worst days in pass protection against the Saints. Cameron Jordan racked up 4 pressures and summarily won the battle from stem to stern.

Johnson will be looking for revenge against this worthy foe and has put together a solid stretch of play since. In the Wild Card win, Johnson faced his biggest test of the season against Khalil Mack & Company and came away nearly spotless in pass protection.

E(M)P(T)Y SLOT

Top-flight wide receiver Michael Thomas leads the league in yards per route run from the slot (3.63). It’s an absurd number that highlights why the Saints kick him inside on 30% of his routes. It’s also a product of him leading the league in target share (32.7%) and catch rate (88.5%) from the inside.

The Eagles have received more stable nickel play in recent weeks due to the emergence of Cre’Von Leblanc. Still, it remains to be seen how Jim Schwartz will allocate resources in defending against Thomas. If it’s anything like he did in Week 11, there’s a problem.

Thomas isn’t the only non-conventional slot threat for the Saints. Alvin Kamara spends 19% of his passing plays on the inside, creating a dangerous combination when he’s paired with Thomas. It really doesn’t matter where they line him up though as Kamara is dangerous as a receiver from any alignment. as the Eagles found out in Week 11. His 2.12 yards per route run ranks 3rd among running backs.

BATTERED BBQ CHICKEN

Save one, every starter for the Saints’ offensive line was featured on their injury report this week. They’re banged up and have seen a significant drop in play recently. This is highlighted in PFF’s pass blocking efficiency (PBE) metric.

  • Saints’ OL Weeks 1-11: 91.0 PBE, 1st
  • Saints’ OL Weeks 12-17: 81.1 PBE, t-24th

Week 16 was their biggest struggle as a line, which stands out for its recency. It’s also notable due to it being left tackle Terron Armstead’s first game back after tearing his pec. Brees was pressured on 39% of his dropbacks with a QB Rating of 87.5 on the day in those situations.

The good news for the Eagles is that after Week 11, the Eagles pass rush found its groove. They’ve created a blistering 38% pressure rate in that span. No player tops Fletcher Cox’s 40 pressures in the last 5 weeks of the regular season. Michael Bennett isn’t too shabby either, coming in tied for 7th with 28 pressures applied. Those two could be in for a feast against a battered Saints’ line.

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