There are a lot of moving parts here as the New Orleans Saints visit the Eagles in Week 17. Who replaces Lane Johnson at right tackle, Jack Driscoll (most probably) or Andre Dillard? Will Jalen Hurts play, or Gardner Minshew replace him again to give Hurts’ ailing right shoulder more time to heel? Do the Eagles move Jordan Mailata from left tackle to right tackle, and play Driscoll at left tackle?
One thing is certain: The Saints are on a two-game winning streak playing for their postseason lives and defensive end Cameron Jordan is coming off one of his better games this season with seven tackles and 1.5 sacks in the Saints’ 17-10 Week 16 victory over Cleveland.
With Johnson, the Eagles know he can take care of every edge rusher in the NFL without any help. Without Johnson, it could mean keeping tight end Dallas Goedert in more frequently to help Driscoll, Dillard or even Mailata, or whomever will be playing right tackle, because whomever it is will be facing Jordan.
With Johnson, the Eagles are 72-44-1 (.620 winning percentage).
Without him, they’re 12-21 (.364).
The only way the Saints have a chance to beat the Eagles on Sunday is through their defense, which is No. 9 in overall defense, giving up an average of 322.4 yards a game, has the second-best overall passing defense, yielding 190.4 yards, only behind the Eagles (181.2 yards/per game) and 10th in the league in sacks with a team-total of 40.
The fact the Saints’ defense can cause problems was not lost on Eagles’ head coach Nick Sirianni.
“I’ll speak on the defense,” he said. “There’s no doubt they have playmakers on offense, very unique playmakers with [Saints RB Alvin] Kamara and with [Saints TE Taysom] Hill and with [Saints WR Chris] Olave. I have a lot of respect for those guys. I think [Saints QB] Andy Dalton has always been a good quarterback in this league who just knows how to win.
“As far as the defense goes, a [New Orleans Saints Head Coach] Dennis Allen-coached defense has always been a good defense. A lot of respect for Coach Allen, and then the players that they have over there, they have good playmakers. They have good guys along the front. No. 56, [Saints LB DeMario] Davis, has been good for a really long time. He’s an outstanding player. He knows how to get his guys lined up. He runs the show over there like so many good mike linebackers that the NFL has seen. You can just see him doing those same types of things.
[Saints LB Pete] Werner, I’ve got a lot of respect for him, No. 20, the linebacker that plays with him. [LB] Christian Elliss’ brother plays on that team, and he makes a lot of plays, No. 55. [Saints S] Tyrann Mathieu, you’ve always got to be alert for where he is on the field. I think 29 is playing really good football at corner, from Stanford. He’s long, he’s got the ability to get in and out of the breaks. He’s physical. We know that about him. Again, and then you have [Saints DE Cameron] Jordan, No. 94; you’ve got No. 92.
“They have players. They have good players, and I always think highly of the scheme, and I always think highly of the way the players play, too, because I know that’s a sign of a well-coached team.
“It’ll be a challenge. We’ll have to be on it to make sure that we can counter all the things that they do well.”
The Saints have the No. 18 offense in the NFL, averaging 337.1 yards a game and are tied with Chicago at No. 22 in average points per game, which the Saints are scoring at a 20.2 rate. New Orleans has 30 or more points twice this season, while the Eagles have done it six times and are 5-1 in games in which they score 30 or more.
With or without Hurts, the Saints pose no real threat against the Eagles, unless they continue to turn the ball over at an alarming rate (seven times the last two games). With or without Lane Johnson, New Orleans should not have any shot of winning, unless Jordan goes off and causes havoc with a strip-sack.
Sirianni is aware of the possibilities. It’s why he was reluctant to share with the media who will start at right tackle on Sunday.
“I’m not going to give you that answer because if I give you that answer then I give the Saints that answer, and I want them to have to prepare for all the different options that could possibly happen,” he said. “We have a lot of different options that could happen. You have [T] Andre [Dillard], you have Jack, you could move [T] Jordan [Mailata]. So there a lot of different options. That’s a great thing to have options because now that guy playing the right side, our right-side defensive end, there left side defensive end, has to prepare for different guys. It’s good to have options. Let’s say that.”
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has written features for SI.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com, MLB.com, Deadspin and The Philadelphia Daily News. In 2006, he was nominated for an Emmy Award for a special project piece for ESPN.com called “Love at First Beep.” He is most noted for his award-winning ESPN.com feature on high school wrestler A.J. Detwiler in February 2006, and his breaking story on Carson Wentz for PhillyVoice on January 21, 2019. In 2015, he was elected president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.