Going into Saturday night’s matchup with the Saints, the Eagles’ defensive gameplan focused on daring Sean Payton to take the football out of Drew Brees’ hands.
New Orleans has been a pass-first offense and was playing without its leading rusher in Pierre Thomas. Unlike most weeks, Davis figured he could pay less attention to the run game and instead scheme to limit big plays in the passing game. Payton responded by handing the ball off over and over again to the tune of 36 carries and 185 yards.
“That’s on me,” Davis said. “I made the calls for the passing game to make sure we keep the big plays off us. It was a lot more split safety and a lot more pass-oriented calls, so some of the runs leaked out. I could have called more of a run-based defensive game, shut that down, but we were trying to keep the points down and the big plays off us. So that run game comes down to me, not the players.”
Was Davis surprised that the Saints, a team that had the seventh-fewest rushing attempts during the regular season, decided to lean on the ground game so heavily?
“Yeah, I was,” he said. “But that’s a credit to them for adjusting, and we adjusted back in that fourth quarter. We knew the running game was coming and we came back to some of the run calls, but the whole thing’s about keeping those points down and the big plays off of us. That was the goal.”
In the first half, the Eagles limited the Saints to six points on six possessions, benefiting from a couple Brees interceptions.
But they were never able to slow the run game. Mark Ingram had a 17-yard run on the Saints’ first play and finished with 97 yards on 18 attempts (5.4 YPC). Rookie Khiry Robinson had 45 yards on eight carries, and Darren Sproles ran four times for 29.
The 185 yards on the ground were the most the Eagles had allowed since Nov. 17 and the third-highest number they gave up all season. From Week 10 on, the Eagles had the fifth-best run defense in the league, and overall, they allowed 3.8 YPC in the regular season, fourth-best.
“When you try to stop something, you give ‘em something,” said Connor Barwin. “It was a challenge for us at times – five, six in the box to stop the run, which we thought we could hold up and do it. But we let ‘em leak for too much. It’s ironic, it came down to the end where [we] weren’t able to get the ball off the field when they were running, everyone in the stadium knew they were running, which is why it’s frustrating. We have to be able to get off the field there in that situation.”
The Saints took over at the Eagles’ 48 with 4:54 left, and the worst-case scenario played out. Not only did they pick up three first downs and set up for the game-winning field goal, but they ran the clock down to zero and didn’t give the Eagles’ offense a chance to get back onto the field.
“The gameplan is always to stop the run, but yes, we shifted our attention to their passing game, and we went coverage a lot because we felt like we could hold up in the run with six guys, five guys in the box,” said Barwin. “And we did at times, but we didn’t enough. We let them leak on first down. But I don’t know. We’ll look back on it. There were too many 2nd-and-4, 2nd-and-3, 3rd-and-2. We gave up little runs on first down that hurt us and made the calls a lot harder for Billy when they got in those short, 2nd-and-short, 3rd-and-short.”
Added Trent Cole: “Coach gives us a play and then we’ve gotta go out there and stop it and that’s what it is. We’ve gotta buckle down no matter what it is, whatever the call’s been made. We’ve gotta go out there as a defense and play, do whatever we can. We’re players. We get a signal and get the call and all we can do is go out there and execute it.”
The Saints ran the ball on eight of nine plays on their final drive. In the second half, the Eagles allowed points on four of five possessions.
“I think we made some big leaps, but in the end it wasn’t enough,” Davis said. “We needed one more solid game. But I’m proud of these guys – the way they grew and the way they dove in. They really are selfless. It was a fun ride. It was a great group of men to work with. And hopefully we built a foundation we can build off of.”