NFC East: Keenan Lewis

PHILADELPHIA -- There’s an old saying that sums up a superior head coach: He can beat your team with his team, and he can take your team and beat you coaching his team.

That comes close to describing what happened to Eagles coach Chip Kelly in his first NFL playoff game Saturday night. Kelly's otherwise impressive debut season ended by getting schooled by Saints head coach Sean Payton and his staff.

The Eagles were the team with the No. 1 rushing attack in the NFL. Payton turned the tables, running the ball down the Eagles’ throats. The Eagles' defense prided itself on stopping the run first, but it was the Saints' defense that rendered LeSean McCoy a non-factor for much of the game.

The Saints focused on stopping McCoy and DeSean Jackson, the Eagles’ two most dangerous weapons. Kelly couldn’t find a way to unleash them or to beat the Saints with other players.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Elsa/Getty ImagesMark Ingram and the Saints found plenty of room to run Saturday night.
The Eagles focused on stopping Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and had some success. But it was beside the point, because Payton shredded the Eagles with Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson.

“They were running downhill,” Kelly said. “If you told [me] going in we were going to hold Jimmy Graham to three catches, I thought that would be a pretty good deal. But give them credit. They did a really good job of running the football against us, which was a little bit uncharacteristic of us. We’ve done a pretty good job of that all year long.”

Not Saturday. The Saints rushed for 185 yards, averaging 5.1 yards per carry.

“That is on me,” defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. “I made the calls so their passing game wouldn’t result in big plays. There was a lot more split safety and pass-oriented calls. Some of the runs leaked out. I could have called more of a run-heavy defensive game and shut that down, but we were trying to keep the points down and the big plays off us.”

The Saints scored 26 points – 20 in the second half – and had four plays of more than 20 yards.

On the other side of the ball, the Eagles couldn’t really explain why McCoy was held to 77 yards on 21 carries. That’s 3.7 yards per carry, 1.4 yards below his regular-season average.

“Early on, there was some miscommunication,” center Jason Kelce said. “The first two drives in particular, guys didn’t understand where the point [of attack] was or who they had [to block]. There would be lanes open, but they would close right away.”

That sounds like the trenches-level view of an offense that was confused and surprised by what the defense was doing. And that is coaching.

“I’ll give credit to [Saints defensive coach] Rob Ryan,” Kelly said. “Rob did a nice job. They had a really good game plan.”

Coaching is also about adjusting within the game. In the first half, the Eagles had targeted Jackson only once. The ball was thrown well over his head.

“We tried,” Kelly said. “The first couple of plays at the beginning of the second half were trying to get the ball to him, but we took sacks again and didn’t get the ball out in time.”

The Eagles’ first two possessions after the coaches made halftime adjustments netted minus-9 yards. The Saints’ first two possessions of the second half netted 119 yards and two touchdowns.

The Eagles’ two second-half touchdown drives consisted mostly of two jump balls thrown to Jackson. When Saints rookie cornerback Keenan Lewis got hurt, quarterback Nick Foles attacked his replacement, Corey White. Jackson caught the first one for a 40-yard gain. White committed a 40-yard pass interference penalty on the second.

The penalty set up the Eagles’ go-ahead touchdown with just under five minutes left in the game. They never got the ball back. Just as the Eagles had sustained long time-killing drives in Green Bay and Tampa, when the opponent knew they were running and couldn’t do anything about it, the Saints ran the clock down to zero and won the game.

"That was the story of the game," Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin said. "This was the wrong time to give up [rushing yards]. It was way too much and it showed on that last drive."

Payton didn’t beat Kelly with his own team, but he came close. He beat Kelly with his own philosophy.


PHILADELPHIA -- A few thoughts on the Philadelphia Eagles' 26-24 playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints Saturday night:

What it means. Chip Kelly's impressive first season as coach of the Eagles ends with an erratic performance in a playoff loss. Kelly's offense was thrown out of rhythm all game by the Saints' defense and was never able to gets its uptempo, aggressive approach into gear. Quarterback Nick Foles' dream regular season ended with an inconsistent performance. Foles wasn't to blame for the loss, but he didn't deliver the heroics necessary to beat Drew Brees and the Saints. The Eagles can feel good about their progress from a 4-12 record in 2012 to a 10-6 record and a division title, but they also know they let a winnable home playoff loss slip away.

Game changer. Foles threw an ill-advised pass to Jason Avant in the third quarter. Avant had to turn and jump and was an easy target for Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis. Lewis drilled Avant, knocking the ball loose. But Lewis also knocked himself out of the game with a head injury. Moments later, Foles threw a jump ball to DeSean Jackson, who had been held without a catch up until that point. The 40-yard gain kick-started the Eagles' comeback from a 20-7 deficit to a 24-23 lead. Corey White, the victim on that completion, committed a 40-yard pass interference penalty to set up the Eagles' go-ahead touchdown.

Happy returns. Big special teams plays made a huge difference in the fourth quarter. Jackson, frustrated on offense much of the game, danced down the left sideline for 29 yards to give the Eagles good field position. They turned it into a field goal, closing to within 20-17. After the Eagles scored a touchdown to take a 24-23 lead, Darren Sproles got outside on the kickoff return. He might have gone the distance, but Cary Williams dragged him down from behind. The 39-yard return and 15-yard horse-collar penalty gave the Saints the ball at the Eagles 48 for their game-winning drive.

Stock watch. Steady: Chip Kelly. Let's put it this way. Kelly coached a much better season than he coached in this particular game. There's no shame in getting outmaneuvered by a couple of veteran coaches like Sean Payton and Rob Ryan. But there's no denying that's what happened, either. The Saints couldn't get anything going in the first half. It took a field goal as time expired for them to get to six points. But they came out sharper and better prepared in the second half, building that 20-7 lead and then driving for the game-winning field goal in the final minute.

What's next. The Eagles will go into the offseason knowing they have a coach and quarterback they can win with, and that is a huge step. They also know where their biggest needs are. The future is bright, even if the Eagles missed an excellent opportunity to do something special in this postseason.


The way things have gone for the Philadelphia Eagles this season, you half expected to hear that Drew Brees fell down an elevator shaft or was hit by some space junk. But no, the New Orleans Saints' superb quarterback will not go the way of Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson and Tony Romo the week before their teams played the Eagles.

Of course, that doesn't mean anyone knows which Brees will show up for the first-round playoff game Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field. Will it be the Brees with the 8-0 record at home, or the Brees who has gone 3-5 on the road this season?

In search of the answer to this and other questions, ESPN.com reporters Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Phil Sheridan in Philadelphia exchanged insight and info.

Phil Sheridan: Let’s start with the obvious: the disparity between the Saints at home and on the road. Is it mostly Brees? The fast track at the Superdome versus grass fields elsewhere? Exposure to electromagnetic waves in the outdoors? Some combination?

Mike Triplett: Shoot, if I had the answer to that question, I’d probably be interviewing for some of these head-coaching vacancies around the league. It really is a mystery. Of course, the most obvious answer is that it’s harder for all teams to play on the road -- especially when weather conditions become a factor. And the Saints have had some road struggles in the past (including an 0-3 playoff record with Sean Payton and Drew Brees). But even in those playoff losses, their offense showed up. We've never seen a season quite like this, where they've had so much trouble scoring points on the road.

Honestly, it’s really come down to the football stuff: Early turnovers that put them in a hole, drive-killing penalties, an inability to stop the run. I expect their offense will still put up plenty of yards and points in this game, but I’m curious to see if they can avoid those costly turnovers -- and if they can find a way to contain LeSean McCoy. Those are the trends they must reverse from their previous road losses.

While we’re dwelling on the negative, what could be the Eagles’ fatal flaw? If something goes wrong for them in this game, what do you think it will be?

Sheridan: The Snowball Effect. While the Eagles' defense has done a remarkable job of keeping points low -- 11 of the past 12 opponents have scored 22 or fewer -- there is a persistent suspicion that the smoke could clear and the mirrors could crack. Matt Cassel hung 48 points on them two weeks ago, the most since Peyton Manning put up 52 in Week 4. Even Sunday night, Kyle Orton was only a couple of slightly better throws away from scoring another touchdown or two. Brees is obviously capable of making those throws. If the Saints can move the ball the way many teams have, plus translate the yards into points, it could force the Eagles to play catch-up. And we haven’t really seen Nick Foles in a shootout-type game yet. Jay Cutler didn't show up two weeks ago when the Bears came to town, and a freak snowfall took Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson out of their game.

The stats say Rob Ryan has transformed the Saints' defense from a farce into a force. Does that align with what you see when you watch them? Does Ryan have the scheme and the personnel to be physical with the Eagles' receivers while getting pressure on Foles?

Triplett: That’s absolutely true, Phil. Ryan has been an outstanding fit for this team. I know Philly fans didn't see his best results with the Dallas Cowboys the past two years. But it must have been a perfect storm here, where the Saints' defense had just given up the most yards in NFL history under former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in 2012. The players were ready for a change -- and Ryan is all about change. He constantly adapts his approach from week to week, building around his players’ strengths and tailoring game plans for certain opponents.

Several young players are having breakout years -- including pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette (12 sacks each this season) and cornerback Keenan Lewis, who is a true No. 1 corner. He’s physical with long arms and plays well in man coverage. I imagine he’ll be matched up a lot against DeSean Jackson.

From what I've read about Chip Kelly, it seems as though he’s a kindred spirit of both Ryan and Sean Payton -- trying to create confusion and mismatches. Is it possible for you to boil down his philosophy to one or two paragraphs?

Sheridan: Force the issue. That’s the underlying principle. It’s behind the no-huddle, up-tempo approach, and it drives many of the unusual things he does with formations and blocking schemes. Kelly wants to spread the field horizontally and vertically, forcing defenses to account for every offensive player and every square foot of grass. He’ll line right tackle Lane Johnson out like a wide receiver, or left tackle Jason Peters at tight end on the right, or DeSean Jackson in the backfield, just to see how the defense responds. If he sees a mismatch, he’ll exploit it until the defense corrects it.

It must be said that Kelly inherited a lot of offensive talent that was pretty darn good under Andy Reid. The line has been outstanding and, just as important, healthy. Jackson, McCoy and the other skill players are exceptional. The X factor has been the way Foles has mastered what Kelly wants to do. There are a lot of quick reads and decisions for the quarterback to make -- whether it’s a zone-read or a package play with run/pass options -- and Foles has translated Kelly’s dry-erase board to the field very well, leading the Eagles to a 7-1 record since they were 3-5 at the midway point.

Payton is a similar creative offensive mind with an NFL pedigree. The first time I met him, he was the Eagles' quarterback coach on Ray Rhodes' late 1990s teams, trying to win with Bobby Hoying and various Detmers. Is he any different or more driven since serving his one-year suspension? Is there a sense the Saints are back where they belong and determined to make a deep run?

Triplett: I think it’s a great comparison. Although the offenses don’t look identical, the philosophies are the same -- create, identify and exploit mismatches. The Saints will actually rotate in a ton of different personnel groupings early in games, as well as mix up their formations, to see how defenses react.

Payton hasn't changed drastically this season. One of the things that stood out to me most early in the season was his patience in games -- how he’d stick with a methodical attack, settling for a lot of check-down passes, etc., to win games against teams such as Chicago and San Francisco. Lately, Payton's been a little stumped in similar-style games on the road, though.

Overall, the idea with him is that he is hyperfocused on every detail that can help this team win. Brees keeps saying Payton’s leaving no stone unturned. It started with switching defensive coordinators on his second day back on the job, then things such as changing the team’s conditioning program, then recently switching out the left tackle and kicker heading into Week 16.

I’ll leave you with a quick question, Phil. Who are the one or two players we haven’t talked about much who could have a big impact on this game? From my end, the answer would probably be those young pass-rushers, Jordan and Galette.

Sheridan: I’m going to go with the Eagles’ key pass-rushers, too -- Fletcher Cox, Trent Cole and Connor Barwin. The Eagles didn't sack Orton at all Sunday night in Dallas. Orton is no Brees, but he does get the ball out quickly. So it might not result in many sacks against the Saints, but the defense has to disrupt Brees' rhythm as much as possible. Cole had eight sacks in the second half of the season. Cox has been outstanding at collapsing the pocket. Barwin is as likely to jam Jimmy Graham at the line of scrimmage as rush the passer.

But somebody from that group -- or maybe it will be Brandon Graham or Vinny Curry -- has to make Brees feel uncomfortable, or it’s going to be a long night for the Eagles. As you pointed out, the Saints have made more mistakes on the road than at home. Forcing some of those mistakes, preferably early, could make the air feel colder and the wind feel sharper.


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