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."
CAN SOMEONE PLEASE EXPLAIN...
What happened to the Eagles' screen game?
For much of the year, the screen game had been prolific. But in the last two games, it was non-existent. Against Dallas and New Orleans, the Eagles tried three screens, and none made it past the line of scrimmage. At the end of the first quarter, the Eagles moved all the way down to the Saints' 15, but Brent Celek took an 8-yard loss on a screen. Nick Foles then took a sack, and Alex Henery ended up missing a 48-yard field goal that the Eagles obviously could have used in the end.
THE NUMBER THAT MATTERS
11 - That's the number of yards of LeSean McCoy's longest run. The NFL's leading rusher finished the regular season averaging 5.1 YPC, but he managed just 77 yards on 21 carries vs. the Saints (3.7 YPC).
"Early on, the first couple drives, there was some communication stuff where guys weren’t going to the right guys," said Jason Kelce. "And then other than that, there was a guy here, a guy there. It felt like we had lanes and then they would close all of a sudden. I could have done a better job on the nose in some situations."
Added McCoy: "I don't know if it's a learning experience. I have been here before. You can only pick up so much from this. We just have to get better. I think we have to execute when we need to. We needed to keep riding that hot streak. I thought we were hot. Obviously, we weren't."
GAME BALL OFFENSE: DESEAN JACKSON
There really weren't a lot of options here as the offense put together a choppy performance and couldn't get going until the second half. But Jackson provided a spark after Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis left the game with a head injury.
He made a terrific play on the ball, hauling in a 40-yard catch that set up a McCoy TD run in the second half. On the next possession, Jackson had a 29-yard punt return that gave the offense field position at the Saints' 40.
And on the drive where the Eagles scored the go-ahead touchdown, Jackson drew a 40-yard pass interference penalty.
In all, three catches for 53 yards, but that number jumps to 93 if you include the PI call. Again, not a ton of options here.
GAME BALL DEFENSE: BRADLEY FLETCHER
In the first quarter, Fletcher had excellent coverage on Kenny Stills deep. Brees overthrew his receiver, and Fletcher made a great play on the ball to come up with the interception.
Overall, Brees completed 20 of 30 passes for 250 yards, a touchdown and two picks. There were some coverage busts in the second half, but as far as I could tell, Fletcher held up pretty well throughout.
THAT'S WHAT HE SAID
"I’m gonna let that sit within the locker room. That’s one of the things that stays in-house." - JASON KELCE
That was his response when I asked if Chip Kelly got emotional when addressing the team in the locker room. Kelce, who is usually very open, didn't want to say one way or another.
"Chip said he’s proud of the way we fought all season, proud of the way we were as a team," Kelce said. "You could tell on everybody’s faces everyone was very disappointed in the outcome. But I’ll leave it at that."
Asked what Kelly's message was, Evan Mathis said: "Just that we’ve got a good group of guys. That we’re gonna be emotional about getting knocked off right now, but that we’ve got a good group of guys that work really well together. A bunch of mature players. He’s thankful for us, we’re thankful for him."
And Jason Peters: "Just stay together. It’s a start. He thanked us for the season we had this year for him, his first year. And we told him it ain’t over. It’s the beginning."
FIVE RANDOM THOUGHTS
1. After a loss like this, conversation often turns to: Which side of the ball is most to blame? But there's no easy answer to that question. The offense scored 24 points and gave the Eagles the lead late in the fourth quarter, but felt like it could have done more.
"I feel like we let the team down," McCoy said. "The first half we couldn't do anything. We didn't capitalize on any of the turnovers we got. We won the turnover battle and we could have done more."
Added Kelce: "Early on we had a lot of opportunities that the defense put in our favor and we just didn’t get it done offensively. It took too long to get going."
Foles completed 23 of 33 passes for 195 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers. On the final offensive drive, he completed 3 of 4 for 21 yards and also had the 40-yard gain on the pass interference. Like the rest of the offense, Foles started out slow, but got going in the second half.
2. Of course, the defense and special teams can't be let off the hook either. New Orleans scored on four of five second-half possessions, and the defense couldn't come up with a stop late in the game after the offense gave the Eagles the lead.
Special teams might have been the biggest disappointment on the team all season long. Kelly made it an emphasis during the offseason, but this group let the Eagles down on too many occasions. Henery missed a 48-yard field goal, and Darren Sproles had the big return to give the Saints great field position at the end.
3. If you're wondering why Earl Wolff didn't play, it was because he couldn't practice during the week.
"I didn’t get a lot of physical reps at practice," Wolff said. "I feel just as a young guy, it’s kind of difficult. They don’t want to put me in a situation where I guess I go out there and not necessarily won’t know what’s going on but just I haven’t had a whole lot of snaps."
Wolff didn't find out until Saturday that he would be active. Davis said he was only going to use the rookie if he had to.
Patrick Chung gave up a 40-yard completion to Robert Meachem in the fourth quarter and continued to struggle in coverage.
Wolff will continue to get healthy and will likely be competing for a starting job next summer.
4. If you want to talk offseason needs, the one that comes to mind off the top of my head is pass-rush. Cole got going in the second half of the season, and Barwin provides excellent versatility, but the Eagles could use someone who can really get after the quarterback. That could mean an outside linebacker or even a defensive lineman. The sense I get is that Davis doesn't want to have to blitz as much as he did this season.
Another area to keep an eye on is wide receiver. Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper are both free agents. The Eagles very well could look to upgrade at the slot position also with Jason Avant.
And of course, as always, there's safety. Nate Allen is a free agent, and Wolff should compete. But given what's asked of that position nowadays - play the run, cover tight ends, play center field - the Eagles have to be on the lookout for a talent upgrade.
5. On behalf of myself and Tim, just wanted to thank you all for joining in. We feel like Birds 24/7 made the second-year leap, and it was a fun season to cover the team. More people read the site in August and December than ever before.
As you know by now, we'll be going strong all offseason. We'll keep an eye on the rest of the playoffs, free agency, the draft and more. We'll be in attendance at the Senior Bowl, the scouting combine and the owners' meetings.
So thanks for all the support, and continue to come back in the weeks and months ahead!
Percentage Of Snaps
The Eagles' offense was only on the field for 58 snaps, so there wasn't a major need to spell guys. McCoy played all but two snaps. Bryce Brown and Chris Polk each had just one.
Percentage Of Snaps
Nothing all that noteworthy on the defensive side of the ball.
GUESSING THE LINE
Well, there isn't one. But the players will clean out their lockers Monday morning, and we'll hear from Kelly. Tim and I will have it all covered.