By Nick Shook
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The Divisional Round is considered by some (including yours truly) as the best weekend in football. The league’s best teams are all battling for a shot to make the conference championship game and move one step closer to football’s greatest stage.
We find ourselves with a surprising lack of favor for the NFC’s No. 1 seed — but a chance to prove the newfound doubters wrong — and a team replacing an important piece on the interior of its offensive line as it prepares to meet one of the league’s most complete defenses.
Plenty of intrigue awaits. Let’s dive into the best trench-related storylines from this weekend’s playoff games.
Can Eagles ride running backs to win over Falcons?
Most folks aren’t giving Philadelphia much of a chance this week, despite the Eagles‘ standing as the NFC’s top seed and their home-field advantage. With Nick Foles under center, the Birds just aren’t as inspiring as they were with Carson Wentz leading the way.
But let’s remove the quarterback for a second, because while it’s the most important position in sports, it’s just one of 11 on the gridiron.
Philadelphia boasts one of the league’s best and deepest rushing attacks, with Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement. Thanks to a versatile offensive line, the Eagles can attack an opponent in a multitude of ways (I chatted with Eagles guard Brandon Brooks about this earlier this season), and while the effects aren’t as devastating as that of the Saints with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, this portion of their offense shouldn’t go overlooked.
It’s interesting that Philadelphia has actually turned away from the running game more since losing Wentz. Per NFL Research, the Eagles have run the ball on just 36.3 percent of their plays in Weeks 15-17, as opposed to 45.7 percent of plays from Weeks 1-14. The results are drastic: The Eagles have dropped from 143 rushing yards per game to 85.3 and an average of 4.57 yards to 3.88 per carry.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to encourage the Eagles to return to the ground game. Add this little nugget in and it becomes clearer in this win-or-go-home week: The weakest part of Atlanta’s fourth-best defense is its pass coverage, earning a cumulative score of 43.5, per Pro Football Focus. Right behind that is its run defense at 44.3, which ranks 12th in the NFL and exists as the best weakness (relatively speaking) for Philadelphia to exploit.
The Eagles‘ best chance of victory involves taking the ball out of Foles’ hands, relying on the veteran to complete passes in manageable situations. Yep, I just uttered the offensive moniker: game manager. Turn Foles into one, or else face the disadvantageous and unlikely scenario of relying on Foles to air it out for the win.
Can Jags replicate ground game vs. Steelers?
We’ll keep this one brief, because I don’t see it happening again. But we still need to cover it, because it was a glaring part of Jacksonville’s stunning, blowout win over Pittsburgh earlier this season.
Leonard Fournette rushed 28 times for 181 yards and two touchdowns in the 30-9 triumph, including a backbreaking 90-yard run to place the cherry on top of the Jaguars‘ victory sundae. As a team, Jacksonville rushed 37 times for 231 yards. But what we saw against the Buffalo Bills — one of the league’s worst teams against the run (29th in yards allowed per game, 23rd in PFF cumulative score), especially after dealing away Marcell Dareus — last week was alarming.
Instead of Fournette leading the way on the ground (21 carries for 57 yards), the Jaguars found their most success with Blake Bortles scrambling 10 times for 88 yards. At one point, Jacksonville turned to the read option, and it worked!
Pittsburgh is situated right behind Buffalo in PFF’s grading but allowed just 105.8 rushing yards per game in the regular season, good for 10th in the league. Between the Steelers and Bills, the former poses a tougher matchup for Jacksonville. It’s also supposed to be frigid in Pittsburgh, though we saw what Bortles did in a temperate but windy Jacksonville last week.
According to PFF’s individual grades from last week’s wild-card game, Jacksonville would be best suited to run more to its right. Center Brandon Linder, right guard A.J. Cann and right tackle Jermey Parnell all earned positive grades in the game, while the opposite side — left guard Patrick Omameh and left tackle Cam Robinson — scored negatively. It was a wash in the grand scheme but could help tip how the Jaguars approach this week.
This is setting up to be a grind-it-out game, unless both teams decide to air it out despite the conditions. Considering the strength of Jacksonville’s defense and, conversely, the struggles of Bortles, this isn’t a good decision for either side. Prepare for plenty of handoffs and a low-scoring affair in which the offensive lines will significantly factor in the outcome of this contest.
Saints regroup after losing Peat
New Orleans has done a stellar job of plugging and playing various linemen without missing much of a beat this season — I covered it here — but the Saints were dealt a significant blow with the loss of left guard Andrus Peat to a broken fibula.
Senio Kelemete steps into Peat’s place with more experience than your typical swing lineman. Thanks to health issues along the line for much of the season, Kelemete has played on 61 percent of New Orleans’ regular-season snaps and played 82 percent of the Saints‘ wild-card weekend offensive snaps. He’s not coming in with much rust.
He’ll face a whale of a matchup this week against Minnesota, which packs plenty of punch with defensive tackle Linval Joseph spending the majority of his snaps lined up as a 1-technique shaded over the guard, just to the right of Kelemete.
Joseph, a 329-pound gap-plugger who wreaks more havoc than your average interior lineman, racked up 68 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 2017. PFF ranks him as the league’s 12th-best interior defender with a grade of 88.1, and in run stopping, he’s tied for ninth-best in the league with Chicago’s Akiem Hicks. Joseph also accounted for a quarterback pressure on 11.73 percent of pass rushing downs in 2017, per PFF.
We should also consider the problem-causing defensive ends in Minnesota. Everson Griffen plays 91.3 percent of his snaps from the right side of the defensive line (lined up nearest the left tackle). Of his 12 sacks and 61 pressures, 11 sacks and 55 pressures have come from this side, per PFF. He’ll mainly be battling tackle Terron Armstead, but this doesn’t mean Kelemete is exempt from assisting or being prepared to take on stunts.
All of this factors into both the run and pass. Minnesota ranked 11th in PFF’s cumulative score for pass rushing, and fourth in run defense. New Orleans wins by establishing the ground game with Mark Ingramand utilizing Alvin Kamara in both the run and pass, and then branching outward to its stable of receiving weapons. Clearing space and protecting long enough for these plays to develop will determine whether Drew Brees finds himself in another NFC title game, or if the Vikings move one step closer to playing the Super Bowl in their home stadium.