Coming into Saturday night, the focus for the Eagles defense seemed to be on halting Drew Brees and the vaunted Saints passing offense. With weapons like Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, and Darren Sproles out of the backfield, it seemed as if the Saints second-ranked passing attack would be the top priority for the Eagles defense.
As it turned out, it was the Saints' much-maligned run game that ended up propelling New Orleans to a 26- 24 victory over the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Despite being without Pierre Thomas, their leading rusher on the season, the Saints ran for 185 yards, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Former Heisman trophy winner Mark Ingram led the way with 97 yards and a score as the Saints ran their way to Seattle for a trip in the NFC's Divisional round.
After the game, defensive coordinator Bill Davis shouldered most of the blame for the woes of the Eagles run defense on the night.
"That is on me," 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 of us. That run game comes down to me, not the players."
Davis also admitted that he was surprised with how much the Saints relied on the run. For a team that averaged just 24.4 rushing attempts per game, the Saints perhaps kept the Eagles off-guard by rushing the ball 36 times on Saturday night.
"I was (surprised)," said Davis. "But that's a credit to them. But we adjusted back and by the fourth quarter, we knew the run game was calling and went back to some of the run calls. The whole thing is about keeping the points down and the big plays off of us. That was our goal.
"They ran a lot more, and they are a passing team, which is what we were worried about this week," echoed linebacker Brandon Graham. "We knew they were going to run it here and there, but we definitely did not think they were going to run it as much as they did. We thought they were going to air it out, and we came up short."
Though Brees was able to connect on some key passing plays, Eagles linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who was responsible for one of two interceptions of Brees on the night, explained afterwards that stopping the run was the Eagles' biggest issue.
"They did a good job running the ball, credit to them," said Ryans. "We didn't stop the run well enough to win the game. Essentially, that is what it came down to. They ran the ball well, and we did a poor job of stopping the run.
"I think they were successful on first down. They were successful on first down running the ball, and that is where they got us."
Despite all of the struggles with stopping the run, the Eagles had a chance to seal a victory with a defensive stop. After fighting all the way back to take a 24-23 lead, the Eagles kicked off to the Saints with just under five minutes left on the clock. Poor kick coverage and a horse-collar penalty on Cary Williams didn't help matters, but the defense had a chance to send the Philadelphia faithful home happy. Once again, the Saints' rushing attack did the trick, sending the Saints into range for the game-winning field goal.
"It was very disappointing," said Ryans. "The game came down to us as a defense making a stop and we knew it was going to come down to that. That is what the playoffs are all about. Whoever is on the field last has to step up and make a play. Defensively, we didn't make the play to get off the field … the team was counting on us as a defense to rise up and get them the ball back and sit on it and win the game."
"That was the story of the game," added Connor Barwin. "We have been keeping teams under 100 yards rushing all season long. This was the wrong game to give up a good rusher. It was way too much and it showed on that last drive."
The Eagles defense has been through a lot of ups and downs this season. After starting out as one of the worst statistical defenses in the league, the Eagles defense grew into its new 3-4 scheme under Davis. The unit consistently showed improvement all season long, and according to Trent Cole, that's a great sign moving forward.
"There is a lot to be proud of," said Cole. "There are a lot of guys that are playing different positions and learning new schemes. For the whole team, guys had to step up, and it was a lot of hard work and we have to hand it to these guys, especially the coaches. (The coaches) came in here and made us a playoff team. It is a start for (the coaches) and a start for a lot of the young guys. Everybody has a taste (of the playoffs) and when the time comes next year, wherever they are at, they know what to build for."