When a team loses a close game, finger pointing takes place. Each play is dissected with the final result, in hindsight, seemingly hinging on the outcome.
The Eagles’ Divisional Round loss in New Orleans is no different.
The the turning points are easy to pick. The fake punt attempt, Nick Foles’ interception, etc. are all plays the Eagles and fans will look at as turning points — plays that you can’t help but wonder what would've happened had they were stopped or made.
As various players discussed after the game, their season didn’t end because of an Alshon Jeffery catch — there were other plays left on the field.
An argument can be made that the turning point was a series of plays — 22 unofficially, all on the same drive — that doomed the Eagles.
Leading 14-10 in the third quarter with the momentum up for grabs, the Eagles’ defense was given several opportunities to get off the field, failing to capitalize each time.
The drive started at the New Orleans’ 8-yard line because of a penalty on the punt, foreshadowing how the drive would turnout. 112 yards later, the Saints found the end zone.
With penalties NFL dot com is listing that drive as 112 yards, and I felt every yard of it.— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) January 13, 2019
The Eagles yielded five first downs to the Saints early in the drive, most of them coming on second down conversions. After the fifth first down, the Eagles’ were given gifts in the form of poor execution on New Orleans’ part.
At the Eagles’ 46-yard line, the Saints checked into their Taysom Hill package and it nearly paid off.
Off play-action, Brees drops and immediately looks downfield for Hill, a player the Saints have used as a quarterback on gadget plays and as an H-back in others. From a condensed split, Hill runs open up the seam for a post route as Corey Graham, the deep safety who starts the play around the 31 yard line, vacates his zone, giving no mind to Hill who clearly has the inside against Avonte Maddox. Only a Brees underthrow prevents the touchdown, giving the Eagles a break.
Following the under-thrown pass to Hill, the Saints go back into their bag of tricks, utilizing Hill as the quarterback and splitting Drew Brees out wide to the bottom of the clip. In empty, the expectation is Hill will get the ball out quick, but there have been instances where he’s throw it deep.
In Week 16 against the Steelers, Hill was inserted around the 50-yard line with Alvin Kamara in the backfield. He threw the ball deep but was ultimately intercepted.
In this game, Hill once again went deep, finding an open Kamara up the seam for a touchdown. Fortunately for the Eagles, Haloti Ngata drew a holding penalty on the play, giving them another favorable opportunity on defense.
In a 2nd-and-20 situation the Eagles went with a split safety look again, tipping cover 2. The Eagles go with a variation of that coverage, utilizing Tampa 2, a coverage in which the middle linebacker drops deeper. This call likely comes to help carry a vertical stem after the mishap on the previous play. The Saints send a vertical route up the seam and linebacker Jordan Hicks takes it. Underneath the Saints are running a mesh concept which involves two shallow crossing routes from opposite sides of the field. Nigel Bradham comes up to play the crosser, opening up a zone for Thomas to camp in. The safety is late to react after Thomas slows and breaks, picking up an easy 20 yards. If Bradham drops a little deeper he might cut that lane off, but on second down the Eagles don't want to give New Orleans a more manageable third down which could happen if he bails and Brees hits the crosser in his zone. It’s a well schemed play by the Saints.
A few plays later, the Eagles again find themselves with an opportunity to get off the field while minimizing the damage. Facing 3rd-and-16, they again yield a first down.
The play starts with Brandon Graham rushing from a 9-tech to bend the corner and take down Brees. The rest of the defensive line rushes to Brees right, freeing an open pocket of space to step into. Needing 16 yards, Brees isn’t going to pick this up with his legs. The outside cornerback at the top of the clip, Avonte Maddox, gets caught hesitating after Brees looks to the running back (Kamara) running a swing route. Given the situation, Maddox should've been content to let Brees throw that and come make the play to tackle Kamara. Instead the hesitation allows Brees to hone in on the single receiver, Thomas again, and complete the pass for another third down conversion.
The hesitation on Maddox’s part was a failure to adhere to the rules of the “No Cover Zone.”
Example of a "No Cover Zone" from the Steve Spagnuolo Film Session on Game Pass. (3rd & 11) pic.twitter.com/6UdqMcI4BL— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) January 14, 2019
Above is an example of that concept which applies largely to late down and distance plays. Defenders shouldn't be worried about the shallower route or player because more often than not a check down isn’t going to pick up the necessary yardage on for a first down.
The Eagles still had one last opportunity to hold the Saints to a field goal following a penalty that put New Orleans in a 1st-and-15 situation.
Good blocking on the split zone look and a bad angle from Maddox give Kamara the edge as he picks up enough yards for the first down. The Saints get a favorable matchup on this run both by box numbers and personnel. The Eagles have just one linebacker on the field, deploying their dime package, and seven defenders in the box, giving the Saints a hat-for-a hat.
Perhaps the dime package was deployed in an effort to aid the coverage given the results of the previous two conversions when the Saints were behind the chains, but New Orleans, a team that wants to run did. The drive ended on the next play as Thomas caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from Brees.
EdjAnalytics, the analytics company the Eagles use for consultation, revealed that with the drive, the Saints’ GWC (game winning chance) improved from 36.7 percent at the start of the drive to 61.6 percent after the PAT for an increase of 24.9 percent overall.
The chart above accurately displays how the drive felt in real time. With each penalty and mistake the Eagles chances rose, only to be dashed by a big completion or conversion. The two passes to Thomas alone tipped the balance 17.3 percent in New Orleans’ favor with Kamara’s run piling on an additional 7.5 percent.
The fact of the matter is teams rarely, if ever, overcome that many penalties to score points, much less touchdown. The team as whole had other plays you can point to that impacted the outcome of the game, but none as much as this drive did.