There were enough ugly statistics in the Eagles’ 48-7 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Nov. 18 to leave the players agitated, but if there’s an area that the defense knows it must improve this weekend from that afternoon, it’s in the red zone and on third downs.
The Eagles have the NFL’s best red-zone defense this season, limiting opponents to touchdowns on 44.6 percent of their trips. Yet in that November loss, the Saints scored touchdowns on four of five visits. The Eagles ranked sixth in the NFL in third-down defense; the Saints converted 6 of 11 attempts.
The Eagles might be optimistic, but they’re not delusional. They know Saints quarterback Drew Brees is going to move the ball. There’s a reason the Saints have the eighth-most yards per game and third-most points per game. But will they move the ball as well on the downs that matter most?
“They’re going to make plays. We’re going to have to make plays, too, to have any kind of success,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “We’ve got to get off the field on third down. If they do move the ball, we’re going to need to play really good red-zone defense and hold them to field goals.”
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, an economics major at Georgetown, says the statistic he cares most about is scoring defense. He’s not as concerned about total defense (the Eagles rank No. 23); the standings aren’t determined by who throws for the most yards between the 20s. But points are the metric that matters; a third-down stop can force a team off the field, and a third-down stop in the red zone can have a four-point difference – from seven points to three. Do that enough times during 60 minutes, and it affects the standings.
Want to know why the Eagles beat the Bears last week? Sure, Nick Foles led the Eagles on a game-winning drive and Cody Parkey missed a field goal, but the Eagles held the Bears without touchdowns on three trips to the red zone and forced them off the field on 5-of-16 third downs.
The Saints rank seventh in the NFL in third-down offense with conversions on 44.6 percent of their attempts and fourth in the NFL in red-zone offense with touchdowns on 69.6 percent of their trips. They surpassed both marks against the Eagles, although the Eagles have been hot in both areas recently. They’ve stopped opponents on 33 percent of third downs since the Saints game and allowed touchdowns on only 30 percent of red zone visits.
“The field gets shorter,” defensive end Michael Bennett said of the red zone. “In the open field, they can do a lot of stuff. But in the red zone, it narrows down.”
That allows the Eagles to focus on a limited menu of running plays and passing plays. The coverage can play tighter, too, without needing to worry about a big gain.
It’s going to be a key in Sunday’s game. So don’t focus so much on how many yards the Saints can accumulate, but rather where and when those yards come.
“At the end of the day, your defense is out there to do one thing, and that’s not let the other team score,” Jenkins said. “A lot of things can happen in between … but if you can get down to the red zone and hold them to a field goal, it’s really hard for teams to beat you. So we put a lot of emphasis on the red zone. We have a simple scheme. Everybody knows their spots and plays it to a T. Every route concept, every hole there is, we study it and practice it. Our coaches do a great job of preparing us, and we have a plan. So it’s not an accident that we’re so good in the red zone.”