Saints stressing Eagles’ transformation since previous game
METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Saints linebacker A.J. Klein gushed over the poise and postseason accomplishments of Eagles backup quarterback Nick Foles.
Philadelphia had better hope Klein is right, because the Superdome was home to Eagles starter Carson Wentz’s worst game this season before he went out with a back injury.
Bringing heavy pressure amid the deafening din of the Superdome, the Saints stifled Wentz in a 48-7 rout back in mid-November, holding him to season worsts of 57.6 percent passing for just 156 yards.
Now comes a rematch in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs, and the Saints must prepare to play one of the NFL’s best known backups. Foles carried Philadelphia to its only Super Bowl triumph after Wentz was injured last season, and helped the recently resurgent Eagles survive this postseason’s opening weekend with a razor-thin victory in Chicago.
“He’s far from just a plug-in player,” Klein said. “Don’t forget he won a Super Bowl for them last year and he was the MVP of that game. So we’re not taking him lightly. He’s not just a person that is just a backup, reserve type of guy. He goes out and when he plays, he wins.”
In some ways, the Eagles are a familiar foe, and not just because the two teams met on the same field just more than seven weeks ago. Two of the Eagles more prominent veterans — safety Malcolm Jenkins and running back Darren Sproles — both were part of multiple Saints playoff teams.
But Saints coach Sean Payton cautioned against any presumption that the vast gulf separating the Saints and Eagles back on Nov. 18 still exists.
“They’re a different team than we faced, obviously, earlier in the year. A different quarterback’s playing right now. There is a confidence you see,” Payton said. “Our league is game to game.”
Particularly in the do-or-die postseason, when the pressure is turned up. Klein stressed that the Eagles’ 4-0 record in their past four playoff games cannot be overlooked.
“They’ve been in this situation before and they know how to win, so obviously we’re not expecting them to be the same team because they’re not,” Klein said. “They’re playing really good football right now and we’ll just be prepared to obviously get their best shot and obviously we’re going to give them ours.”
Two of the biggest differences the Saints will have to contend with in the rematch are Foles and Sproles, neither of whom played in the previous meeting.
Saints players and coaches left little doubt about their respect and admiration for Foles. His composure is a big reason why.
“There’s a confidence level he has in operating in rhythm, spreading the ball around,” Payton said. “He does a great job of beating pressure with the throw.”
In the Eagles’ 16-15 victory on Sunday in Chicago, Payton noted, “you saw him a handful of times with a free rusher coming in his face make some throws outside the numbers that were real impressive. ... There’s a calmness obviously when you watch him play that we all see.”
Added Klein, “You could see that he’s poised and he has great control of the offense and great control of that team. ... He handles pressure well.”
New Orleans also is wary of Sproles’ ability to produce as a runner, a receiver out of the backfield and a punt returner. The Saints know from experience. Sproles’ 2,696 all-purpose yards with New Orleans in 2011 remains a single-season NFL record.
Now Sproles is 35 and plans to retire after this season, but Payton hardly sounded inclined to underestimate him.
“He’s a very, very smart player. It’s one of his great traits along with his ability,” Payton said. “He’s got very good elusiveness and quickness. He’s done a good job with their draws and one-back run schemes. And obviously he’s a dangerous punt returner, but someone who’s a special player.”
Meanwhile, the Saints haven’t exactly looked like the juggernaut they resembled in midseason, when the Eagles were among a string of teams that lost to New Orleans by multiple touchdowns.
During the last five weeks of the season, the Saints went 3-2, and the average margin of victory in their past three wins was 6.7 points.
Klein said the Saints hope the opportunity to self-scout — and rest — during their first-round playoff bye will help New Orleans look its best in the postseason.
The Saints used last week to “look at certain situations throughout the season where we’ve been not so good and figure out why and get those things shored up,” Klein said.
“And obviously the time off and be able to rest and get some guys healed up who’ve been banged up the past few games has been very important.”