The Saints beat the Eagles on Saturday night and will be advancing to play the Seahawks next Saturday in the divisional round of the playoffs. They beat those birds by implementing a long-standing strategy in this league: ground and pound.
That’s all New Orleans did. They ran the ball and stopped the run on defense. It might sound a bit old-fashioned in today’s NFL with pass-happy quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Brees, but it worked darn well for the Saints.
Sean Payton and company ran the ball 36 times for a total of 185 yards while holding LeSean McCoy to 77 yards and just 3.7 yards per carry. The Saints are one of the most unbalanced teams in the league (35-65 run-pass ratio) but they imposed their will in the running game.
Drew Brees was held (that’s the standard now) to 250 yards passing and was picked off twice, but fortunately for the Saints, Mark Ingram picked up the slack, rushing for 97 yards. It helped that Philadelphia’s defense missed tackles all game, but Ingram’s 97 yards felt more like 150.
The Saints’ ground game was working the whole game, and they never got away from it. Next week, and if the Saints go further in the playoffs, Sean Payton could look to establish the run early, then try to hit the deep posts off play action once the Seahawks (or any other team, if the Saints beat Seattle) load up eight defenders in the box to stop the run.
The Saints took the first step in erasing their road playoff woes. They go to Seattle next. Although they have perhaps a top three quarterback in Drew Brees, the Saints have to control the clock and play the possession game in order to win. That starts with running the football effectively and playing great defense.
That’s how it’s been for the last few Super Bowl champions. The 2009 Saints had an excellent defense (bounty scandal aside). The 2010 Packers, although decimated by injuries, led the league in points off turnovers. The 2011 Giants opened their playoff run against Matt Ryan, holding them without a single offensive point. That team also held Tom Brady to 17 points in the Super Bowl, and those same Packers to just 20 in the Divisional Round that year.
All of those teams established at least solid running games. James Starks erupted in the playoffs for Green Bay during their 2010 run. The Giants even managed to get Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs going in 2011. Although his production has slipped this year, Ray Rice led the Ravens on the ground last season.
Get the point? Running games and defenses win championships. If the Saints have truly rediscovered their running game, they should at least be able to compete with Seattle this time around. Now that they seem to have some of their road woes behind them, Sean Payton, Drew Brees, and company have to feel more comfortable knowing they can function without throwing the ball 65 percent of the time.
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