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Look for Bradford to go deep again vs. Saints

Sam Bradford's visits to the podium at the NovaCare Complex were cut in half after the first week of the season. Rather than answer questions on two days each week, the Eagles quarterback opted for just one day - as is his right - but for a longer period.

Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford.
Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford.Read more(Brad Mills/USA Today Sports)

Sam Bradford's visits to the podium at the NovaCare Complex were cut in half after the first week of the season. Rather than answer questions on two days each week, the Eagles quarterback opted for just one day - as is his right - but for a longer period.

Bradford may have regretted the decision after the first three weeks. As his struggles continued, the questions about the Eagles' inability to throw downfield began to mount over the 8-10-minute sessions.

"Why aren't you taking more shots?"

"Are defenses taking the long ball away?"

"Why aren't the receivers getting separation?"

"Is it rust? Your knee? Locusts?"

Even after the Sept. 27 win over the New York Jets, the majority of questions Bradford had to field were about the anemic passing game. He had attempted just seven throws beyond 20 yards through three games and hadn't completed one.

But Sunday was a different story. If there was a positive to take from the loss to the Redskins it was Bradford's performance, in particular his downfield aggressiveness. He tossed deep eight passes and completed four for 176 yards and two touchdowns.

When he took the stage this Wednesday, a reporter joked that Bradford wouldn't have to answer any more questions about the deep ball or lack thereof.

"That's right," Bradford said. "Hopefully, that question is gone for a while now."

But questions still remain. Why wasn't the deep ball there for the first three games? Why was it unleashed with such fury in Washington? And perhaps, most important, will it remain a weapon in an Eagles offense that is still in search of an identity?

It should, at least, for Sunday's do-or-probably-die game against the Saints. The New Orleans defense has allowed an NFL-worst 9.4 yards per pass attempt.

"It's not something that we've been trying to shy away from; it just hasn't really presented itself until last Sunday," Bradford said. "Now that it's out there teams have to respect us pushing the ball down the field."

The Falcons, Cowboys and Jets have respectable defenses and variable levels of talent in their secondaries, but the Redskins were ripe with cornerback DeAngelo Hall out and counterpart Chris Culliver clearly less than 100 percent. That seemed to be a significant reason for coach Chip Kelly to call for more vertical routes.

Bradford also took advantage of a defense that typically had seven in the box - the seventh being a safety. He went at double coverages. He threw receivers open. And he fit long passes into tight windows.

Entering Sunday, Bradford averaged 5.8 yards per pass attempt. Only one other starting quarterback was worse. Bradford completed only 54 percent of his passes against the Redskins, but he averaged 9.6 yards.

"I think a little of bit was maybe some of the calls," Bradford said. "They're designed to push it downfield, so you have to be a little more aggressive. I think in that second half . . . I found a rhythm where I was just really confident in everything that we were doing."

He showed glimpses before the half, though. Bradford finally had his first successful deep ball when Nelson Agholor made a one-handed grab for 45 yards. But it was a dart to Zach Ertz in the end zone from 11 yards out that suggested Bradford had found some of the preseason magic he showed in Green Bay.

The touchdown was negated by a penalty, but Bradford came out slinging in the third quarter. He threw too high to a one-step-ahead Jordan Matthews, but he hit Riley Cooper for a 62-yard touchdown on a deep post six plays later and hooked up with Matthews for on a 30-yard seam route on the next drive.

"Any time you can take shots down the field, it's always a good momentum builder for your offense because now that defense says, 'OK, these guys aren't afraid to go at us,'" Matthews said. "Sam has the talent, we've just got to put him in a lot of situations where he can do that."

Bradford was under siege for most of the game. But he managed to slip out of two would-be sacks - the second when he rolled to his right and hit an open Brent Celek for a 10-yard score. The capper came when Bradford floated a 39-yard touchdown pass to Miles Austin in the fourth quarter.

The Eagles stumbled with the lead, however. Darren Sproles and Matthews couldn't make third-down catches. Neither pass was perfect, but Bradford hasn't gotten much help from his receivers this season. Only Eli Manning (15) has had more receivers drop passes than Bradford (14).

But many of his early struggles were of his own doing. Bradford was erratic and looked jittery in the pocket. He was playing in a new system, after all. But will he ever max out his abilities in this offense?

Kelly's scheme hardly ever allows for the quarterback to audible. Going up-tempo doesn't allow for checking into a new play. But when the Eagles offense does slow and a new play is necessary, it typically comes from the sideline.

When asked about Saints quarterback Drew Brees, Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis lumped him in with the best quarterbacks in the league, all of whom have the luxury to change plays on the field based on the reading of a defense.

"They have the playbook at the line of scrimmage," Davis said. "I think those are the hardest [quarterbacks] to defend."

An improved running game would make Bradford harder to defend. But even if the ground game can't get going, or if defenses try to take away the deep ball, an aggressive and accurate quarterback will always control his own destiny.