Since the day he was hired as the Eagles’ defensive coordinator, Billy Davis has talked about competing against opposing play-callers and quarterbacks on gamedays.
Last week against the Saints, he went up against one of the best duos in the league in that respect: Sean Payton and Drew Brees.
“He’s probably one of the best in formations and matchups and adjustments,” Davis said of Payton. “He’s got a great mind as far as he makes you defend the width and the depth of the field.
“And I think him and Drew are really one and the same person. They have worked so much together that their understanding together that no matter what is in Sean’s head, Drew can execute. And that’s the key to great offensive football is when the quarterback has the same understanding as at coordinator or the head coach in this case, and they play very efficient.”
The Saints entered the postseason with the reputation as one of the league’s more pass-happy teams. That figured to be even more the case Saturday, considering they were without their leading rusher in Pierre Thomas. The Eagles, meanwhile, had the fifth-best run defense in the NFL since Week 10 and had shown vulnerabilities against the pass.
All week, the question was whether the Eagles could handle Brees. No one paid much attention to the Saints’ running game.
But on the first play Saturday night, Payton provided a twist.
New Orleans came out in 12 personnel – one running back and two tight ends. Davis elected to go with his nickel package. That meant corner Brandon Boykin on the field instead of nose tackle Bennie Logan. Trent Cole, an outside linebacker, stuck his hand in the ground and lined head-up against the left tackle.
“They kind of caught us by surprise,” Logan said. “We wasn’t expecting them to run. Different things that we saw on film that kind of gave us keys to run and pass. The first play of the game was a stretch play, which caught us by surprise. …They were more of a passing team, not necessarily a running team. So they ran the ball a lot more than we expected.”
Here, you’ll see the Saints block down on Connor Barwin, the wide receiver lines up Nate Allen, the tight end gets to Mychal Kendricks, and the center sizes up DeMeco Ryans.
Cornerback Bradley Fletcher’s job is to keep Mark Ingram from getting outside, but he misses the tackle, and the result is a 17-yard gain.
“I made the calls for the passing game to make sure we keep the big plays off us,” Davis said afterwards, admitting he was surprised New Orleans stuck with the run. “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.”
A few things stood out when watching the Saints run the ball on tape:
1. They used multiple tight ends all game long. Take away Brees’ runs, and New Orleans ran 31 times for 172 yards, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Of those 31 runs, 23 came out of multiple-TE sets. The Saints gained 130 yards on those plays and averaged 5.7 yards per carry.
2. The Saints got the Eagles in their nickel package to run the ball. With Boykin on the field instead of Logan, the Saints ran it 13 times for 84 yards (6.5 YPC).
“As the game went on, they kind of got us out of our base formation,” Logan said. “We brought our nickel in, and a lot of times when we brought our nickel in, they ran the ball on us with something that caught us by surprise, something we never saw on film. It was just something that caught us by surprise, we weren’t expecting it.”
3. On a player-by-player basis, the Eagles did not play their best game. The defensive line, which had been a real strength, got pushed around. Linebackers struggled to get off blocks and finish plays. And the defense as a whole missed too many tackles.
“It’s still 11-on-11,” said DeMeco Ryans. “You’ve gotta beat the man across from you and make a play. Coach Davis called a good game, a really good game. But we still have to make plays.”
Davis tried to adjust and started to go with his base defense more against the 2-TE sets. The problem there? Without Boykin, it left the Eagles vulnerable in coverage.
Here, again the Saints go with two tight ends – even though neither goes by the name of Jimmy Graham. Instead, it’s veteran Benjamin Watson and rookie Josh Hill.
Watson runs an over route across the field to the left sideline.
The Eagles show blitz, but end up just sending four. Kendricks rushes Brees, while Ryans and Barwin drop back into coverage. Davis was hesitant to send extra rushers at Brees all game long, instead opting to drop players into coverage. The Eagles were one of the heaviest blitzing teams in the league during the regular season, but only rushed more than four on five of Brees’ 33 dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus, or 15.2 percent of the time.
Ryans got good depth on his drop, but when he turned around briefly to see if a player was crossing, Watson had not yet cleared. Ryans faced the quarterback and lost track of the tight end, who came wide open near the sideline.
The Saints used a play-fake, and Kendricks had a chance at Brees, but the veteran did a great job of climbing the pocket. The result was a 27-yard completion, Brees’ second-longest of the day.
And of course, the Saints deserve credit for just executing better on many plays.
“They had a good gameplan, and Mark Ingram, he ran like his life depended on it,” said Cedric Thornton. “He’s a great running back, and definitely can’t take nothing from them guys.”
Ingram led New Orleans with 97 yards on 18 carries, but it was rookie Khiry Robinson who came up big on the Saints’ final drive. Facing a 2nd-and-11, the Saints ran an inside zone.
Initially it looks like Nate Allen will be able to make a play on Robinson, even though the linemen and linebackers are being blocked.
But the rookie RB cuts it back. Logan can’t get a hand on him, and Ben Grubbs does a great job on Fletcher Cox.
The result is a 13-yard run on one of the key plays that set up the Saints’ game-winning field goal.
All week long, we analyzed and projected how the game would play out. But no one pegged the Saints’ running game as a determining factor in the game’s outcome. No one but Payton, that is.
He relied on multiple TE sets, got the Eagles in their nickel package and ran the ball all game long. That’s a major reason why the Saints are still alive and headed to Seattle to take on the Seahawks in the divisional round.