ReFo: Saints @ Eagles, Wild Card Round
Ben Stockwell discusses the individual performances that played key roles in the Saints' road win on Wild Card Weekend in Philly.
ReFo: Saints @ Eagles, Wild Card Round
In defeating the Philadelphia Eagles, the New Orleans Saints lifted a few monkeys off their back. They got a win in cold weather, they put their poor road form from this season behind them and they finally got the franchise’s first ever road playoff win. That combined with getting their ground game back on track (both in terms of the line and the running back’s performances) will help get some of those mental blocks out of the way as they head for a re-match with the Seattle Seahawks next weekend.
This was the kind of ground performance we know the Saints are capable of but haven’t seen for a while now. However, when they needed it most, they found it and were able to get solid gains against the Eagles’ defense all night long before coming up with the telling drive in the final 4:44. The relative ease with which they were able to pick up first downs on sneaks by Drew Brees only served to highlight the control their linemen had up front.
For the Eagles it was disappointment for an offense that never really hit top gear (especially on the ground) against a Saints’ defense that threw up more road blocks than the Eagles could cope with. Having ended the season in such fine form their offensive line couldn’t give LeSean McCoy the clean holes to hit at pace that would’ve set this offense motoring along. There were missed opportunities for the Eagles that some people may agonize over until the team reconvenes in the summer for OTAs and training camp, but the Saints closed out this tight game due to superior execution.
New Orleans – Three Performances of Note
Ingram and Robinson Pound the Rock
Splitting 26 carries between them, Mark Ingram (+3.4 rushing) and Khiry Robinson (+2.3 rushing) took advantage of solid blocking all night long to keep driving the Saints forward. With their offensive line giving them 2 yards per carry before first contact, Ingram and Robinson were able to build up a big enough head of steam to tick towards 5.5 yards per carry. This success served to shorten the game and keep the Eagles’ fast-paced offense on the sideline throughout the game, not only during the final five minutes when New Orleans ground their way to victory.
Both backs earned season-high running grades and were just as adept hitting and exploiting gaps to the inside (5.4 yards per carry between the tackles) as they were outside (5.5 yards per carry off tackle and off end). The Saints were out of the game before their running game could be a factor against the Seahawks in Week 13, the pressure will be on Ingram and Robinson to carry this form over into next week when their standard of opposition takes another step forward.
Stout Up Front
Winning defensively in the trenches doesn’t always mean totally dominating your opponent and limiting their ground game to little more than scraps. Faced with the Eagles’ superior running attack, the Saints were never likely to completely shut it down but what they needed to do, and did, was limit it. This was mostly thanks to the efforts of their big defensive linemen who stood up to be counted and didn’t get washed away in the speed and movement that the Philadelphia offensive line brings to the field. On the inside, Brodrick Bunkley and John Jenkins had strong games with Bunkley making life difficult for Jason Kelce on the inside in the first half before Jenkins came in to provide a fresher, bigger body for the Eagles to cope with in the second.
Further to the outside, Cameron Jordan not only came up with a pair of stops but also played his part in stringing out runs to the edge or, if he couldn’t stay out front, was able to defeat his blocker in time to pursue from the inside, stopping LeSean McCoy from cutting back into an area he can be so devastating. The Saints’ run defense faces a different test next week but the defensive line will need to be just as disruptive with stronger displays than they put in first time around in Seattle.
The Saints’ entire offensive line deserves credit for their display last night with Terron Armstead, a few plays aside, continuing to show fast improvement from his NFL debut just a fortnight ago and Zach Strief being his usual dependable self in pass protection. The interior, though, were the real stars last night. Whether it was combining forces as a trio to wedge block Drew Brees to a conversion on a sneak, controlling linemen at the first level or working through to pick up linebackers this was a Saints’ offensive line back somewhere towards its run-blocking best.
Just like their defensive line, this wasn’t about utter dominance, it was about regularly getting the upper hand and setting the stage for consistent gains. In a back-and-forth battle in the middle, Brian De La Puente edged his encounter over rookie nose tackle Bennie Logan more often than not. This success allowed the two men either side of him, Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans, to work to the second level to pick up DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks as often as they worked on the likes of Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton at the line of scrimmage.
Philadelphia – Three Performances of Note
Fine from Foles but Not Enough
Nick Foles and the Eagles’ offense surely wouldn’t have figured when they took a one-point lead with five minutes to play that they had done their job for this game, but not getting the ball back to try and win the game will surely be a bitter pill for them to swallow. Though this was not the Eagles at their high-octane best, their quarterback put in another solid display, on point for most of the night with his passing.
The Saints did well to limit the deep ball, only allowing the one deep shot to be completed off of a scramble into the right flat by Foles. However, Foles was strong on intermediate passes completing four of five for 71 yards and a score between the numbers and also only suffering one incompletion on short targets between the numbers, including his second scoring pass. The statistics may have flattered Foles’ performance level at times this season, but this was a decent first playoff start to cap off a season in which he settled well into Chip Kelly’s offense. More to come next season?
Grinded Down and Out
Consistent success on the ground can be demoralizing for a defense and though the Eagles never yielded that breakaway run to the Saints’ running game they came out second best last night in what proved to be the game’s decisive matchup. With seven of their 10 missed tackles (the first time since Week 14 they have hit double figures) coming against the run, the Philly defense failed to get to grips physically with the Saints’ runners to either shorten some of their solid gains or maximize their stops when they did get into position to halt either Ingram or Robinson.
Even if it didn’t involve missed tackles, the Eagles’ defense was able to disrupt the runner making him change the point of attack a few times. But even when they forced Mark Ingram to bounce a run outside they still couldn’t close to him in time to cut him down near the line of scrimmage, instead letting him get his shoulders squared to turn that bounce into 3 or 4 yards rather than 1 or 2, small differences but it all adds up.
Strong Finish from Fletcher
The man to get the Eagles off to a fast start last night was Bradley Fletcher (+1.2) who snagged the Eagles’ first interception with five minutes remaining in the first stanza. Tracking Kenny Stills down the field, Fletcher was able to stay on top of the route, cutting Stills off to the sideline as Drew Brees was putting the ball in the air, finding the football to turn around a potential early big play for the Saints into a big play for the Eagles. For the rest of the game Fletcher let up only two catches for 19 yards on his further three targets and prior to that he got the third down stop on Stills to end the Saints’ opening drive. Aside from his aberration in Minnesota, Fletcher has only let up more than 50 yards in a game once since he returned to the field against the Cardinals on Thanksgiving weekend.
– John Jenkins played only six snaps in the half before notching 17 after the interval. Brodrick Bunkley played almost twice as many snaps in the first half (23) as he did in the second (12).
– James Casey hit double digits in snaps for the third straight week and the fifth time since Thanksgiving. Prior to Thanksgiving Casey averaged less than seven snaps per game, afterwards he averaged 18 per game.
– Prior to his departure from the game Keenan Lewis had only surrendered two catches on four targets for 8 yards, setting a season high with three defensive stops.
PFF Game Ball
They got solid blocking in front of them but the duo of Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson got everything and more that their offensive line gave them to drive home the Saints’ first ever road playoff victory.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.