Saints' Rushing Attack, Defense Makes New Orleans Super Bowl Favorites

Murf BaldwinContributor IJanuary 7, 2014

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 04:  Shayne Graham #3 of the New Orleans Saints celebrates with teammate Mark Ingram #22 after kicking the game winning field goal to defeat the Philadelphia Eagles in their NFC Wild Card Playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field on January 4, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The New Orleans Saints defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 26 - 24.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

The ability to switch your pitch... 

This column has wondered aloud if the New Orleans Saints had the wherewithal to win a playoff game in which quarterback Drew Brees was unable to deliver one of his typical prolific performances. 

Well that question, at least for one game, was answered with an emphatic "yes."

With a 26-24 victory over the upstart Philadelphia Eagles, the Saints answered quite a few questions. The Saints' perceived road futility is a widely discussed topic among fans and pundits alike. 

There's been discussion about whether the Saints defense has the ability to shut down elite run games while maintaining its dominant pass defense. And many have questioned if the Saints have the running backs to wear down a defense over the course of a game.

All of those questions get a check in the "yes box," at least as it pertains to that particular game. But for that yes to hold weight, the Saints must replicate that performance against possibly the best team in the NFL in the Seattle Seahawks...on the road. 

And they certainly can. 

Winning in Spite of Brees

It's almost sacrilegious to even think negatively about Brees. He's undoubtedly a future Hall of Famer who has done it the right way. His otherworldly talent is only superseded by his supreme leadership skills.

To say that he and head coach Sean Payton are joined at the hip would be putting it mildly. They can lay claim to being the most successful head coach-quarterback duo not only of recent memory but maybe of all time.

This season has been more of the same.

The 11-5 Saints finished the season as the fourth-ranked offense in the NFL. In addition, Brees delivered his third-straight 5,000-yard passing season. By all accounts it was business as usual in the Brees-Payton era.

With the exception against virtually every smashmouth football team they faced—especially on the road. The Eagles were the ultimate physical team as they excelled in both running the ball (first in the NFL) and stopping the run (10th in the NFL). 

Factor in that the Eagles had the worst pass defense in the NFL, and you could plainly see the game plan that Payton and Brees would deploy.

And boy were we wrong.

The Saints opened the contest with 28 rushing yards on three straight runs, a number of attempts that would have been the total for three quarters in some Saints games in the past. And with Brees continuing his downward spiral (one touchdown, two interceptions) on the road, leaning on the run game was the only scenario that would've gotten the Saints a victory.

Via NFL Rewind

It wasn't the fact that the Saints ran the ball; it was more about them running the ball regardless of the front they saw. During the regular season, as late as the St. Louis Rams game, the Saints' passing offense was continuing to force the ball downfield, even into two-deep coverage.

Throwing the ball against light boxes will get you beat in the NFL—even with a QB as great as Brees.

Here the Saints see a front designed to stop the run. Running the ball against eight-man boxes are reserved for uber-physical offenses such as Seattle's and San Francisco's. Having offenses still finding success against this type of front is demoralizing for the defense. 

For a person who has been on the wrong end of this type of situation, let's just say that it almost makes you want to quit. Something we all saw in the Eagles toward the end of the contest. 

Via NFL Rewind

The player that sprung this run was none other than tight end Ben Watson. With the Saints lining up in a  22 personnel (i.e., a "grown-man formation,"), they made this play a man-on-man situation. Watson gets the seal block on the defensive end Cedric Thornton. 

Notice how backup tight end Josh Hill receives the assignment on this play rather than "superstar" Jimmy Graham. No. 73, guard Jahri Evans, gets the pull assignment to get to the next level. Now ask yourself: Who in the world wants to take on a block from this beast in the open field? 

Which would be a rhetorical question as the answer is a resounding nobody!

Via NFL Rewind

The Saints simply outflank the Eagles and you can see the holes and cutback lanes developing rapidly. Fullback Jed Collins is further blocking insurance on a play that was a conceptual masterpiece. 

The Saints have the ability to do this against each remaining team in the playoffs. The offensive line may not be the best moving backwards for pass protection, but allowing it to pin its ears back in the run game is to the benefit of all parties involved.

Via NFL Rewind

Running back Mark Ingram not only has the ability to make the first defender miss, but his open-field prowess is at the top of the class these days. Something clicked with Ingram during the Saints' Week 10 blowout of the Dallas Cowboys, and that something is confidence.

They say motivation breeds results, so maybe it took the fanbase collectively being down on him to change his fortune. But whatever it is, he just needs to keep honing in on it.

As great as Brees is, the Saints don't need to totally rely on him to win the Lombardi Trophy. In this day and age you can't win that way. Brees needs to drive the ship, and at times, he simply needs to be a passenger.

With Ingram and fellow back Khiry Robinson wearing down defenses, the Saints offense becomes that much more potent. Please tell me that Saints fans didn't get a kick out of seeing the Eagles defense walk around looking like characters from Dawn of the Dead in the waning moments of the contest? 

Here's hoping the sequel stars the Seahawks. 

Defense Wins Championships

Going into the contest with Philadelphia it was widely known that the Eagles offense featured receiver DeSean Jackson and running back LeSean McCoy. Most Saints fans figured New Orleans could stop one or the other...but not both! 

The Saints have often stopped great run teams but have done so to the detriment of the pass defense—none more so than in the previous meeting with Seattle. But against the Eagles the Saints may have turned the corner. 

The job Saints corner Keenan Lewis did on Jackson (zero catches on Lewis, three catches for 53 yards total) was absolutely masterful. If McCoy is the engine that makes the Eagles offense go, then Jackson would be equivalent to the high-performance tires that gives it that edge.

Well let's just say Lewis hijacked the Eagles' wheels. 

Via NFL Rewind

Here we see Lewis on Jackson who is running a fade route. Lewis' mechanics are fantastic right out of the gate. His leg width is perfect, which gives him the ability to change direction quickly. He also doesn't show that he's going to press initially—as most corners do.

A receiver like Jackson wants to chop Lewis' hands in an attempt to beat the press. By allowing Jackson to believe he'll get a free release off the line only works to Lewis' advantage.

Via NFL Rewind

Lewis gets on top of the route and crowds Jackson's space in what is referred to as the "money zone." a great deal of such battles are won by corners in this initial phase. By covering up Jackson, Lewis throws off the timing between the receiver and the QB.

Via NFL Rewind

As was the story the entire night, at least before Lewis left with a head injury, Jackson grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of room to operate on the initial part of his route. In turn, QB Nick Foles felt uncomfortable even giving Jackson a chance to make a play.

With the Eagles' passing attack being Jackson-centric, Lewis' tremendous job on Philadelphia's star receiver allowed the rest of the defense to focus on McCoy. Once Lewis left with an injury, McCoy (21 attempts for 77 yards) became a lot more prevalent. This is why the Saints should put Lewis on a team's hot receiver rather than having him focus exclusively on the biggest threat. 

Every team left for the Saints to face possesses a potent run game. By Lewis extinguishing the best threat out wide or in the slot, the New Orleans defense can unequivocally stop every remaining playoff team's rushing attack. And with the Saints' own run game leading the way, New Orleans can now wear down defenses and control the clock. 

If they are to go to this game plan early, it will only create easier opportunities for the best remaining offensive player in the NFC, Drew Brees.

Now that's scary!