Friday, September 18, 2009

Eagles - Saints Preview

By Michael Rushton

The New Orleans Saints have had no issues at quarterback since Drew Brees came to town. The Philadelphia Eagles wish they could say the same thing.

Likely without Donovan McNabb, Philadelphia welcomes New Orleans to town this Sunday for its 2009 home opener at Lincoln Financial Field.

Though McNabb has been one of the biggest factors in the Eagles' decade-long span of success since being taken second overall in the 1999 draft, the former Syracuse quarterback has also had trouble shaking the injury-prone label from his resume. After missing 15 games between 2005-07, McNabb was able to appear in all 16 games last year, but that probably won't be the case in 2009.

The 32-year-old suffered a fractured rib in last Sunday's 38-10 victory over Carolina on a three-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. While McNabb hasn't officially been ruled out of this contest by head coach Andy Reid, the Eagles did sign veteran Jeff Garcia earlier this week to back up Kevin Kolb, who will start for the first time in his career if McNabb can't go.

Philadelphia also elevated Michael Vick to the 53-man roster, despite the fact that he won't be eligible to play until Week 3 as he finishes his suspension for his role in a dog-fighting ring that led to a two-year jail sentence. The move does allow Vick to practice with the team until then.

Garcia, released by Oakland on September 5, started six games for the Eagles in 2006 and helped the club win its final five games to reach the playoffs, where it lost to the Saints in the NFC Divisional round.

New Orleans' offense put up over 500 yards in its 45-27 victory over Detroit in Week 1, the most lopsided season-opening win in franchise history, but faces an Eagles' defense that forced seven turnovers and notched five sacks versus the Panthers.

If McNabb is unable to play on Sunday, a shootout will likely favor the Saints. After all, Brees did throw a career-high six touchdown passes -- four in the first half -- last weekend to match New Orleans' single-game franchise record.

While the Eagles are still waiting to see if they get good news on their franchise quarterback, the Saints caught a break themselves on Tuesday, when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith will not face immediate disciplinary action for their involvement in an ongoing battle over 2008 suspensions incurred for banned substance violations.

Grant and Smith were two of the five players hit with four-game penalties last year for using a product that contained a possible masking agent for steroids. Goodell said it would be unfair to suspend the two, since courts have blocked the NFL from suspending Kevin and Pat Williams of the Minnesota Vikings for the same incident.

Philadelphia, which has won three of its last five home openers, is trying to start 2-0 for the first time since 2004, which was also the last time the club reached the Super Bowl.

The Saints, meanwhile, have dropped each of their last two road openers and haven't started a year 2-0 since 2006.


Philadelphia leads the all-time regular season series with New Orleans by a 15-9 margin, including a 38-23 road victory when the teams last met, in Week 16 of the 2007 season. New Orleans won the previous regular season affair, a 27-24 decision at the Superdome in 2006. The Eagles were 33-20 winners when the clubs last met in Philly, in 2003, and the Saints are 0-3 at Philadelphia since last winning there in 1991.

In addition to the regular season series, the teams have met twice in the postseason, with the Eagles taking a 36-20 road decision in a 1992 NFC Divisional Playoff, and the Saints returning the favor with a 27-24 home win in a 2006 NFC Divisional Playoff.

Reid is 3-2 in his career against New Orleans, while the Saints' Sean Payton, who served as quarterbacks coach in Philadelphia from 1997-98, is 2-1 against both Reid and the Eagles as a head coach.


The reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year, Brees picked up right where he left off in last weekend's win. He completed 26-of-34 pass attempts for 358 yards and matched New Orleans' record for most scoring passes in a game, first set by Billy Kilmer in 1969. After failing to make a single touchdown catch last year, tight end Jeremy Shockey (4 receptions) hauled in two scoring throws versus the Lions. Devery Henderson (5 receptions) had 103 yards receiving, over half of that coming on a 58-yard scoring catch, while fellow wideouts Marques Colston and Robert Meachem also hauled in TD receptions. The Saints weren't just an air attack versus the Lions, as Mike Bell ran for a career-high 143 yards on 28 carries, the largest rushing total by a Saints player since 2003. Although fellow back Reggie Bush carried the ball only seven times for 14 yards, he did make five catches for another 55 yards. Bell saw the bulk of the carries due to Pierre Thomas' knee injury that held the latter out of Week 1. Thomas was able to practice in full on Wednesday and could make his season debut this weekend.

New Orleans will need a balanced attack after the performance the Eagles' defense put forth last weekend. Putting constant pressure on Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme, Philadelphia picked him off four times and also forced a fumble that defensive lineman Victor Abiamiri (5 tackles) returned two yards for a score early in the second quarter. Cornerback Sheldon Brown had two of the Eagles' five picks on the day, with corners Asante Samuel and Joselio Hanson, as well as linebacker Akeem Jordan (5 tackles), also registering interceptions. The five picks were the most in a single game for the Eagles since 1996. Lineman Darren Howard (5 tackles) had two sacks, with fellow end Trent Cole (5 tackles) and Jordan also getting to the quarterback. Philadelphia also did a good job of containing Carolina's dual-threat running back tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The two combined for just 71 yards on 25 carries. Safety Quintin Demps is questionable due to a hamstring injury that Reid says has him day-to-day.


McNabb threw for 79 yards on 10-of-18 passing, including touchdown throws to tight end Brent Celek (6 receptions) and running back Brian Westbrook, before exiting. Kolb struggled in relief, going 7-of-11 for just 23 yards. He was also sacked twice and lost a fumble. Inexperience at quarterback might force the Eagles to lean on their running game a bit more, something the club doesn't do much under Reid. Westbrook rushed for 64 yards on 13 carries versus Carolina, while 2009 second-round pick LeSean McCoy added 46 yards on nine carries in his regular-season debut. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson (2 receptions) carried twice for 33 yards and also returned a punt a career-long 85 yards for a score. Jackson was limited in practice this week because of a groin injury, however. The Eagles will also be without two of its projected five starters on the offensive line, as left guard Todd Herremans will sit out his second straight game due to a foot injury, while former Pro Bowl right tackle Shawn Andrews was placed on injured reserve on Tuesday because of a nagging back issue.

Although the Lions scored 27 points, the new-look Saints defense limited Detroit's offense to 231 yards, including just 33 on the ground. Both Detroit touchdowns produced by the offense were rushing scores, and the New Orleans secondary intercepted rookie quarterback Matt Stafford three times on the afternoon. Making his Saints regular-season debut, safety Darren Sharper had two picks to give him 56 in his career, most among active players. Cornerback Tracy Porter and linebacker Scott Fujita tied for the team lead with seven tackles, while linebacker Scott Shanle (5 tackles) had the team's other pick. Smith and Grant, meanwhile, were held to just four total tackles between the two of them, as linebacker Jonathan Vilma (4 tackles) had the Saints' lone sack. Safety Roman Harper is questionable this week because of a thigh injury, while both defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy and Porter missed some practice time due to knee injuries.


McNabb owners will be left scrambling for a quarterback this weekend, even if he can suit up despite the rib injury. If he can't go, Kolb would make his first-ever start and is unlikely to put up favorable fantasy stats. That should increase the value of both Westbrook and McCoy, though. Jackson is Philadelphia's lone starter-worthy wideout in a system that spreads the ball out, and he will also get some touches in the "Wildcat" formation. Celek is a good start at tight end, though. Don't expect a duplication of the amazing point total the Eagles defense tallied in Week 1, as it faces Brees, who is always a must-start. Meachem and Henderson have big-play ability but are inconsistent, while Colston is always a good play. Lance Moore owners have to be angry with the New Orleans receiver's lack of production (2 catches, 38 yards) in the opener. Bell and Bush might receive a few less touches this week if Thomas can come back, but he himself is a risky start with the Saints likely to ease him back in.


What was shaping up to be a shootout among top-tier NFC quarterbacks seems to have now shifted the Saints way. With Reid committing to Kolb if McNabb can't go, it would be unfair to expect the 25-year-old to be able to hold serve with Brees. Philadelphia will now need to control the clock if it hopes to run with New Orleans, something that isn't really Reid's strong point. The Eagles have the tools to run-and-gun with the Saints, but they no longer have the foreman. Philadelphia might be able to rattle Brees if it can duplicate its pass rush from the Carolina game, but Brees is no Delhomme and thrives on spreading out the ball, though he might not have the time to look down field as much. New Orleans will capitalize on McNabb's absence and pick up win No. 2 on its hopeful march to the postseason.

Predicted Outcome: Saints 28, Eagles 17

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