Saints eager to test run defense vs. Eagles
(AP) — If New Orleans’ fourth-ranked defense is vulnerable in one area, it is stopping the run.
The Saints ranked 19th in that area during the regular season, yielding 111.6 yards per game.
When they open the playoffs Saturday night in Philadelphia, they’ll have to contend with LeSean McCoy, the NFL’s top rusher, and a couple capable backups who help form the NFL’s top running game.
“They have a fantastic running back,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of the Eagles. “They do a great job with misdirection, creating those running lanes and really keeping you off balance defensively.”
The Eagles have averaged 160 yards per game. McCoy rushed for 1,607 yards and nine TDs this season. Bryce Brown has rushed for 314 yards and Chris Polk has been impressive when given the chance, averaging 8.9 yards on 11 carries.
“Our running back situation is outstanding,” Philadelphia offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. “Obviously, we have a starter, but when we put Bryce and Chris in there, they have done a really, really good job. They both can run the ball, they both catch the ball well and they certainly both can pass protect.”
Saints defensive players heap praise upon Philadelphia’s ground game, but also aren’t shy about expressing confidence they can contain it.
Asked if the Saints should be worried about what looks like a statistical mismatch between Eagles rushers and Saints defenders, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said, “No,” without hesitation.
“We had a couple of bad games that made that (yards rushing allowed) number a little skewed, but other than that we do a great job versus the run,” Lofton said.
Indeed, some of the Saints’ individual results back Lofton up. The Saints allowed only 88 yards rushing in a victory over Buffalo, which ranked second in the NFL in rushing, and only 81 yards in a win over San Francisco, which ranked third in rushing.
“We face elite talent every week and sometimes you have missteps,” defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “You’re not going to be perfect on every play, and that’s what we’ve got to do for the playoffs. We have to try to be perfect.”
Saints coach Sean Payton emphasized that statistics can be misleading, and noted as an example that one of the reasons the Eagles rank last in passing defense is because they’ve led a number of games, forcing teams to pass more to try to catch up.
“There’s a couple of things that are misleading” about the Saints’ overall run defense statistics, Payton said, adding that he’s viewed New Orleans’ run defense as pretty good over the last half of the season.
“This is a unique offense, though, in the type of runs you’re getting compared to maybe a more conventional run list that you might see on a week-to-week basis,” Payton added of the Eagles. “Finding your gaps and being on top of where the runner is, all those things are important.”
Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette called McCoy “a beast” and “right now the best back in the NFL.”
Galette said outside pass rushers like himself would have to contain McCoy somewhat like they attempt to do against mobile quarterbacks, and force him to run inside against stout defensive tackles Akiem Hicks and Brodrick Bunkley.
“If he breaks contain then he’s gone,” Galette said.
He added that stopping Philadelphia’s ground game would be critical both in Saturday night’s game and going forward, should the Saints advance.
“If we stop them, that’s going to boost our confidence through the roof, knowing that whoever we play the next week is not going to be a better running team than they are,” Galette said.
NOTES: Pierre Thomas missed a second straight practice with a chest injury. Payton said the injury occurred during last Sunday’s victory over Tampa Bay, but he did not specify whether it was likely to prevent Thomas from playing Saturday night. Payton said that in the even Thomas could not play, he had confidence the running game would be in good shape with Mark Ingram, who has averaged 4.9 yards per carry, and Khiry Robinson. “When you look at what Mark’s done, what Khiry’s done, we’ve got good depth there,” Payton said. ... S Rafael Bush (ankle) was limited in practice.