For the past several days, Saints fans had been waiting nervously to hear whether or not if one of the team’s biggest reasons for their success in the past year ― their once top-rated offensive line that finished the Regular Season with a slew of injuries ― was going to be at full strength for tomorrow evening’s Divisional Playoff game against the visiting and defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles at the Superdome.
Tomorrow’s contest very more than likely will be won or lost “down in the trenches”; and the Eagles have a menacing Front 4 that features All-Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox along with a talented group of pass rushers that helped play a vital role in Philadelphia’s last-minute Playoff push. Which is why yesterday’s news that Saints 6th year veteran offensive left tackle Terron Armstead will start in Sunday’s game was quickly greeted with a notable degree of excitement by Who Dats everywhere.
As reported by The Times Picayune / NOLA’com beat writer Luke Johnson, Armstead returns to the starting line-up after only playing in one of the Saints’ final 7 games after he had torn his pectoral muscle against the Bengals at Cincinnati back in Week #10.
Armstead did not return initially until the Week #16 game at the Superdome against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but wasn’t able to make it through the first half of the game once he re-aggravated the injury. Armstead ended up getting an MRI after that game, and “went forward from there,” which Johnson says that the former University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff star’s injury has healed enough to the point where he now feels he is able to play.
“I’m going. I’m going. I’ll be in there,” Armstead said. “It doesn’t matter what I feel like once the game starts. I got to play at 100 percent regardless if I feel like it or not. The camera doesn’t care. I have to go out with that mentality; if I’m playing, I’m 100 percent.”
“Everybody’s been banged up, and I’m pretty sure that’s across the league, but our six or seven guys have been dealing with some issues,” Armstead said. “That week off was huge for us, it helped a lot, and Sunday we’ve got to be ready to roll.”
It would appear that the entire Saints O-Line will be available tomorrow against the Eagles, once the opening whistle blows. Offensive tackles Jermon Bushrod (hamstring), Armstead (pectoral) and Ryan Ramczyk (shoulder) and guards Andrus Peat (hand) and Larry Warford (knee) all participated in full during the team’s practice yesterday. and all are expected to be ready.
The Saints O-Line was clearly one of the biggest reasons for the team’s success in the 2018 Regular Season, and only allowed Brees to get sacked 17 times all year. But after the Dallas game where they struggled to protect Brees in part because of being forced to shuffle players around due to injuries, Brees began to get much more uncomfortable in the pocket during the final stretch of games than he had been all year.
Now they’ll all need to be prepared to face a talented Eagles front that has been one of the more dominant defensive lines in the entire sport of Pro Football recently.
As noted by Washington Post National NFL writer Adam Kilgore, during last year’s 2017 Super Bowl run, the Eagles only gave up 10 points to the Falcons in the Divisional Round; and 7 points to the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game. They actually did give up 33 points in the Super Bowl to the Patriots, but the Philly Front 4 helped seal the victory when Graham strip-sacked Patriots All-Pro QB Tom Brady.
But this past season, the Eagles suffered a whole slew of injuries to their defense, particularly in the secondary, where they lost their top three cornerbacks (Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills and Sidney Jones) and starting free safety Rodney McLeod.
That more than anything was a big reason why the Eagles got off to such a poor start with a (4-6) record, before they rallied to win 5 of their last 6 regular season games to even just make the Playoffs. And it certainly was the reason why the Saints were able to hand them a 48-7 whipping at the Superdome in Week #11.
But since that time, the Eagles essentially have been able to “put a band-aid” over the gaping hole in their secondary with a couple of talented rookies (draft pick Avonte Maddox and former practice squad player Cre’Von LeBlanc) that has at least somewhat stabilize their pass coverage just long enough to allow their vaunted and feared D-Linemen to get much more significant pressure against opposing quarterbacks.
The All-Pro Cox (10.5 sacks), along with gifted pass rushers Bennett (9), Long (6.5), and Graham (4.5); are leading the Eagles defense back to their Super Bowl-winning ways of last year, and have managed to time their sudden re-emergence almost perfectly alongside their change at QB from starter Carson Wentz to last year’s Super Bowl MVP, back-up QB Nick Foles.
In their win last Sunday at Chicago against the Bears, the Eagles Front 4 played a vital role by limiting Chicago to 15 points, and they forced a three-and-out that set up Foles’ game-winning drive. As Kilgore observes: Foles has delivered some “magic”, but Philadelphia’s defense ― and especially their Front 4 ― has been an equal partner in that effort.
“Some key spots have been down,” Long said to Kilgore. “People are always afraid to make an excuse, but we just won a playoff game. So it’s not an excuse. You look at the list of players we lost on the back end this year, it’s been tough. Those young guys came in and did a good job fighting, adapting. A lot of them are helping us win right now.”
Those young guys also helped the Eagles D-Line to began getting extra time to get after QB’s, and Philadelphia believes that it will help them go after Brees tomorrow.
Or so they hope, anyway.
With the notable exception of returning defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, the Eagles will have pretty much the exact same personnel for this game against the Saints that they had in that 48-7 butt-kicking they got from the Black and Gold in mid-November. But Kilgore adds that the Eagles are better now, because the younger players that were forced into action have since grown, and that growth has helped spur on Philly’s resurgence especially among the Front 4.
Now they’ll be looking to utilize the same-game plan that other teams have been attempting to use after they saw how Dallas was to fluster Brees, who isn’t the same master of the “quick release” when he gets a ton of defensive pressure ― especially from within the interior of the D-Line.
However as Long concedes: that’s a whole lot easier said, than done.
“It’s not easy at all,” Long said. “Drew feels pressure and he knows where it’s coming from. He has a different sense. He has that quick release. It’s very hard to get to him.”
They likely don’t have much of a choice, since those rookie cornerbacks might not be able to hold off the Saints potent passing attack for too long. When the Eagles lost to the Saints back in November, not only was Brees not sacked a single time, but basically he was barely even touched.
Brees SMOKED the Eagles secondary; completing 22 of 30 passes for 363 yards and 4 TD’s. Brees also put up a near-perfect passer rating (153.2) and averaged a whopping 12.1 yards per pass attempt, his second-highest ever in his entire 18-year NFL career.
That’s very obviously something that the Saints would like to happen once again in tomorrow’s game at the Superdome, especially with their entire season at risk.
Even with the young cornerbacks’ stellar performances helping to stabilize their secondary, the Eagles still gave up 269 yards per game through the air, which ranked them 30th overall in the entire League. In fact, Philly has actually allowed a total of eight 300-yd passers this season, which includes the 303 yards that they yielded to Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky last week.
Bottom line: this game tomorrow will be won or lost “down in the trenches” ― and Armstead and the rest of the Saints O-Line will need to come up big and be able to protect Brees, in what easily will be the most critical moment of their entire season….