The New Orleans Saints broke a lot of new ground in Saturday’s 26-24 playoff victory against the Philadelphia Eagles. It was the first road playoff win in franchise history. Perhaps even more surprising, the Saints actually ran the ball (36 times) more than they passed the ball (30 times).
Quarterback Drew Brees struggled early, but he finished strong. The Saints’ run game and offensive line were outstanding throughout.
Here are some observations after reviewing the tape:
Unpredictable offense: I was impressed by many aspects of the Saints’ run game -- from the runners themselves, to the offensive line, to the blocks by tight ends and receivers. But I might have been most impressed by the way the Saints ran the football throughout the night. Almost all of their runs came with just one back on the field -- with two tight ends or three tight ends.
That made the Saints’ run game less predictable, and it gave them the chance to run against more three-man fronts and nickel packages. Mark Ingram's 4-yard touchdown run in the third quarter actually came out of the pistol formation, with three receivers bunched to the right and tight end Jimmy Graham on the left side of the line. Darren Sproles also had a 13-yard gain late in the first half in a four-receiver set.
I’ve never been one of those believers that the Saints need to stubbornly beat their heads against the wall trying to “establish the run” or “wear down a defense.” I’m fine with them being a team that passes first and foremost. But when a team is begging the Saints to run the ball like the Eagles were, the Saints have to take advantage. And they certainly did that Saturday.
As coach Sean Payton and players said after the game, they didn’t go in with a run-heavy game plan. But when they saw the way the Eagles were defending them and how effective the run-blocking was up front, they stuck with it.
Watson dominates: The unsung hero in the Saints’ run game was tight end Benjamin Watson. He showed up repeatedly when I went back and watched the tape. He’s been a solid run-blocker all season, but this was definitely his best performance in that role. The highlight was a big-time crack-back block that helped spring Ingram for an 18-yard gain in the third quarter.
Credit all around: Several guys deserve credit for the success of the run game. Obviously both Ingram and rookie running back Khiry Robinson were exceptional. There were at least two impressive examples of each runner making a guy miss early with a sharp cut, turning a potential negative play into a positive one.
The entire offensive line was impressive -- sometimes zone-blocking and sometimes just plain winning the physical push up front. That was the case when quarterback Drew Brees moved the chains forward on two quarterback sneaks late in the game behind center Brian De La Puente and guard Jahri Evans (one time with an assist from fullback Jed Collins, pushing from behind).
The best example of everything coming together on one play might have been Ingram’s 17-yard run on the first play of the game. Right tackle Zach Strief sealed the edge with a nice block. Watson got out in front with a great lead block. And Ingram made cornerback Bradley Fletcher whiff with an impressive burst of speed.
Play-action payoff: All of that run success helped set up two of the Saints’ biggest plays of the game on play-action fakes. In the third quarter, Brees hit receiver Lance Moore with a 24-yard touchdown pass on a play-action rollout. Moore actually appeared to be Brees’ third or fourth option on the play. But after he scanned all of the options on the right side of the field, he threw across his body to Moore in the middle of the field. And Moore ran in the final 11 yards.
Then in the fourth quarter, Brees hit Meachem with a 40-yard bomb out of a heavy run set. Meachem burned safety Patrick Chung with a fake to the outside before turning back up the field and broke open by a full step.
Hit and miss: Brees’ earlier attempts at deep throws weren’t as successful. He overthrew Sproles on the opening drive when Sproles had broken open on a deep route behind linebacker Connor Barwin. Then Brees threw an interception on a deep ball intended for receiver Kenny Stills later in the first quarter. The ball wasn’t too far off-target, but it might have been slightly underthrown since Stills was on the outside and cornerback Fletcher had inside position on him. Stills then tried to cut in front of Fletcher, but the ball sailed over Stills’ head and right into Fletcher’s arms.
Brees threw another interception in the second quarter that was even more unexpected. He had plenty of time to throw, and he fired a short pass directly into the arms of linebacker DeMeco Ryans. Brees was trying to hit Moore with a slant route and must have expected Ryans to go the other way. Instead, Ryans easily came over from the middle of the field to step in front of Moore.
Brees found his rhythm after that second pick, though. He completed 13 of his last 17 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown -- including the touchdown to Moore, the 40-yarder to Meachem, a 27-yarder to Watson, and a pretty 17-yarder to Graham in a tight window.
Graham hassled: It was obvious that stopping Graham was the Eagles’ No. 1 priority. He was double-covered for much of the night, and replays showed a variety defenders taking turns hitting him off the line, trying to disrupt his route. A couple times, he looked like a pinball coming off the line.
Armstead solid: Rookie left tackle Terron Armstead had another impressive performance in his third career start. He repeatedly held up well in a one-on-one matchup against standout pass-rusher Trent Cole. One of the best examples came on the 40-yard pass to Meachem, but there were several others.
I only marked down three real negative plays for Armstead (a holding penalty that nullified a third-down completion when he was beaten, a 1-yard sack he allowed to linebacker Brandon Graham, and a pressure against him that forced Brees to throw the ball away).