By Rob Maaddi
The Eagles begin their quest for a top-5 pick in the 2021 NFL draft Sunday against New Orleans by giving Jalen Hurts his first career start against the league’s No. 1 defense.
New Orleans not only has the best team in the NFC at 10-2 but the best defense overall. The Saints have allowed just two touchdowns in the past five games. And, they have Malcolm Jenkins coming back to Philadelphia looking to avenge the team releasing him. He made it clear this week he felt disrespected, saying he “just wasn’t valued that much by those who make the decisions.”
It’s clearly a mismatch on paper but there’s a possibility this becomes a classic letdown game for the Saints, who may be looking ahead to a showdown with the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 15.
Would that be enough for the Eagles to pull off an upset and snap a four-game losing streak? Probably not. But if Taysom Hill plays again, there’s a chance.
A win would mess up the Eagles’ bid to move up in the draft. They’ll enter the weekend with the sixth spot but two teams ahead of them in the draft order face off when the Bengals host the Cowboys. Another team ahead of them, the Chargers, also have an opportunity to earn a win at home against the Falcons.
A loss to the Saints plus a win by Los Angeles would vault the Eagles into the No. 4 spot.
At this point, that’s far more important than chasing the Giants and Washington in the NFC East race.
Here are three matchups to watch:
Eagles Run Game vs. Saints Run Defense
Miles Sanders is averaging 5.3 yards per carry but only got the ball 16 times combined the past two games. The Eagles needed to run the ball behind a depleted offensive line all season but now Doug Pederson acknowledged the importance of doing so with Hurts under center.
Problem is the Saints allow just 76.1 yards per game on the ground, second-fewest in the league.
“I think in order to get (Hurts) success, you’ve got to attempt and try to establish a little bit of the run game, that helps,” Pederson said. “Then he can be a part of that, I think and just go out and maybe try to find some easy completions, right? The quick game or a screen here and there, something that can just kind of get him into the flow of the game. This is the No. 1 defense, it’s no easy task. Obviously, he’s facing a really good opponent this week. It’s our job as coaches, it’s my job as a play caller to try to help him that way and get him into the flow of the game and then we’ll see what happens from there.”
Eagles CB Darius Slay vs. Saints WR Michael Thomas
DK Metcalf and Davante Adams torched Slay the past two weeks. Slay is battling a knee injury so covering Thomas is going to be even more difficult.
“I think that he’d probably be the first person to say that he hasn’t played his best football these last two games, but that’s not going to change the way we handle him,” Jim Schwartz said of Slay. “That is not going to change the plan for him.”
Eagles DEs Derek Barnett/Josh Sweat vs. Saints LT Terron Armstead
Armstead missed the past two games on the COVID/reserve list but returned to practice this week. Barnett had a quiet game in Green Bay after an impressive performance against Seattle. Josh Sweat has one sack in the last eight games after three in the first four. Eagles need both to pressure Hill’s blindside, force him into making mistakes.