Film study: Reviewing Saints' defense

January, 6, 2014
Jan 6
4:40
PM ET
The New Orleans Saints' defense did an outstanding job of containing the Philadelphia Eagles' big-play threats -- at least until cornerback Keenan Lewis left with a head injury late in the third quarter. Although it got a little too close for comfort late in the game, the Saints' defense deserves a ton of credit for keeping the game close in the first half before New Orleans' offense finally got rolling in a 26-24 victory.

Here are some observations after reviewing the tape:

[+] EnlargeLeSean McCoy
Al Bello/Getty ImagesSaints linebacker Curtis Lofton tries to contain Eagles running back LeSean McCoy in the first quarter of their wild-card playoff game.
Containing McCoy: Every week it seems like Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan comes up with a new approach for each specific opponent. This week, it was clear the Saints' goal was to keep a wide perimeter around LeSean McCoy to limit his chances for big gains. The Saints rarely blitzed all day (just five times on passing plays, according to ESPN Stats & Information). And their linebackers and safeties often hovered back behind the line of scrimmage rather than attacking downhill. The last thing they wanted to do was have one of McCoy's vintage cutbacks break him into the open field.

It worked great -- especially early. During the first 40 minutes, McCoy gained just 38 yards on 12 rushes and 10 yards on two receptions. His longest gain during those first 40 minutes was an 8-yard run. … The Saints were willing to live with some of his 5-yard gains, as long as he didn't bust loose. And sometimes they swarmed him for negative plays -- like a 4-yard loss in the first quarter when both edge rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette got to McCoy deep in the backfield.

Three other run defenders who stood out on multiple plays were nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley, end Akiem Hicks and inside linebacker Curtis Lofton -- though everyone from the line to the secondary really deserves credit for the disciplined group effort.

McCoy did have a couple of highlight plays. He cruised into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown on fourth-and-1 in the third quarter when the Eagles' blockers did a great job of sealing off the right edge. That left linebacker Will Herring stuck in no man's land on the read-option play. Herring hesitated while looking at quarterback Nick Foles and couldn't get to McCoy. (Later, however, Herring shut down Foles to force a zero-yard pass on a similar play near the goal line. So Foles was likely his primary assignment).

McCoy also had a couple nice gains when he flashed some of those nasty cutbacks. One time, he made Lofton slip and safety Roman Harper dive and miss during an 11-yard gain.

Containing Jackson (for a while): Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis finally made his strongest case yet for making the Pro Bowl this year -- when he left the game. Lewis did such a solid job in pass coverage against dynamic Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson that Jackson had zero catches and only one target in the first 40 minutes. Lewis wasn't overly physical with Jackson at the line, but he did a good job of getting close to him early, then staying close to him down the field.

However, after Lewis suffered a head injury (while making a nice, hard pass break-up against receiver Jason Avant), Foles suddenly got brave. Foles hit Jackson with a 40-yard bomb against cornerback Corey White on the very next play. And later in the fourth quarter, White was penalized another 40 yards for pass interference on a deep ball to Jackson. Both led to touchdowns.

White's coverage wasn't awful. He did a decent job of running downfield after the faster Jackson. And both throws were actually a little underthrown. But both times, Jackson did a better job of locating the ball in the air and positioning himself to make a catch. He “boxed out” White to win a jump ball the first time. And the second time, White got too grabby while they both turned to go after the ball. Clearly, White never had the chance to locate the ball on that one since he was running full speed to catch up to Jackson.

Foles also picked on rookie cornerback Rod Sweeting a few times after Lewis left the game. He hit receiver Riley Cooper for back-to-back comeback routes of 8 and 14 yards. However, Sweeting did a nice job on Cooper later on a third-and-6 play, forcing Foles to check down to a 5-yard pass and settle for a field goal.

Other pass plays: The rest of the Saints' pass coverage was hit and miss. Foles had a lot of time to throw against mostly three- and four-man rushes. Sometimes he couldn't find an open receiver (once taking a sack by Jordan against a three-man rush). Other times, Foles was able to wait for guys to get open in little pockets of coverage. That was the case on his 10-yard touchdown pass to Cooper in the second quarter (a gorgeous throw over the head of a lunging Harper). That was also the case on a 3-yard TD pass to tight end Zach Ertz in front of linebacker David Hawthorne in the fourth quarter. And it was the case on a 24-yard pass to tight end Brent Celek and a 22-yard pass to Cooper earlier in the game.

The Saints dodged a huge bullet early in the third quarter when Cooper dropped an easy pass while he was wide open with tons of open space in front of him. The Eagles successfully executed a pick on that play, with Celek running into Harper in the middle of the field to spring Cooper.

Earlier in the game, Harper had a nice physical pass break-up against Celek on a third-down stop that flirted with pass interference, but didn't go too far.

A little pressure: The Saints got to Foles a few times. When they did blitz, it was very effective. The highlight was an all-out, seven-man blitz in the third quarter that forced an intentional grounding penalty on Foles. Then on the next play (on third-and-17), Jordan and Hicks busted through on a four-man rush for a sack. Hicks torched right guard Todd Herremans with an athletic swim move, and Jordan came around right tackle Lane Johnson to hit Foles from behind.

Jordan's sack in the first half was unusual. Foles held the ball forever against the three-man rush and should have gotten rid of it long before Jordan got to him. Jordan did use a nice move to get free against a double-team, though. He faked a spin move to the outside, which actually made guard Evan Mathis turn his head and look away to see if anyone else needed help. Then Jordan shot between Mathis and left tackle Jason Peters.

Galette also had several highlights early in the game, including two hits on Foles to blow up plays. Both times Galette beat Peters. The first time he forced an incomplete pass. The second time, he forced Foles to throw early across the field to Celek on a toss-back play. And Lofton was all over Celek to tackle him for an 8-yard loss.

Big return: The Saints' special teams were very good on Saturday overall. But they did have one breakdown when Jackson returned a punt 29 yards to set up a field goal in the fourth quarter. The replay didn't show any egregious mistakes. The first three guys down the field all got taken out by nice solo blocks. Then Jackson found a lane next to the sideline, and the other Saints' defenders weren't able to cut across traffic to get to him right away.

Big compliment: When talking about the Saints' loss of safety Kenny Vaccaro to a broken ankle last month, NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said he thought Vaccaro was the best defensive rookie in the NFL this year.

Mike Triplett

ESPN New Orleans Saints reporter

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