Saints Rushing Attack vs. Eagles Run Defense
The 6-9 New Orleans Saints come into Week 17 with a slim hope of winning the NFC South. To keep those hopes alive, they face the daunting task of winning on the road against the 13-2 Philadelphia Eagles.
Over the last two years, the Saints haven’t been able to contain a Philadelphia offense that ranks first this season. A New Orleans offense that has had its struggles is going to have to have a strong outing.
The Saints rank 18th in total offense, averaging 337 yards per game. They rank 15th in passing production, but had to lean on their running game to pull out a win in awful weather conditions at Cleveland last week.
New Orleans takes on a Philadelphia defense that’s been overshadowed by their explosive offense. However, the Eagles rank second in total defense, allowing only 302 yards per contest. Philadelphia has also forced the second most turnovers in the NFL (26), which presents a problem for a Saints team that has a minus-12 turnover differential.
The Eagles have shown some vulnerability against the run this season. Can New Orleans take advantage and keep their season alive?
Saints Rushing Attack
– 20.2 points per game (22nd)
– 114 rushing yards/game (19th)
– 4.3 per rush (20th)
– 11 rushing touchdowns (24th)
– 40.5% 3rd Down Percentage (14th)
New Orleans overcame high winds and bitter cold in Cleveland with a running game that finished with 152 yards. It was their highest rushing total since 228 against the Bengals in Week 8 and just their third outing over 100 yards in nine games.
The Saints accomplished this despite RG Cesar Ruiz being placed on injured reserve last week and losing LG Andrus Peat to an injury in the first quarter. They’ll have the same interior issues this week. Calvin Throckmorton is an adequate replacement for Ruiz, while Josh Andrews will step in if Peat can’t go.
Tackles Ryan Ramczyk and James Hurst must be able to block down effectively for their runners to have lanes along the edge. Rookie OT Trevor Penning is used on jumbo packages.
Center Erik McCoy returned to the lineup two weeks ago from an ankle injury. The Saints have run for 286 yards in those two games. In the five games without McCoy, New Orleans averaged less than 59 yards on the ground.
The entire offense still revolves around RB Alvin Kamara, who leads the team with 717 yards rushing. Kamara hasn’t been as involved in the passing game, he has 55 catches but just 480 yards, but is on pace for the second most carries of his six-year career.
A dynamic all-purpose threat, the Saints have had a hard time getting Kamara in space the last two years. However, he’s on a bit of a roll with 167 rushing yards on 41 carries in the last two weeks.
Taysom Hill has been the team’s most consistent inside running threat. He has a team-high six rushing touchdowns and 505 yards on the ground while averaging 6.6 per carry.
Hill is a bruising runner with excellent burst into open space. Both he and Kamara are more effective attacking defenses off-tackle, but each are tough enough to pick up yards inside. Hill doesn’t have Kamara’s rare vision or elite cutback ability, but will simply run through tacklers for extra yards.
Veteran RB David Johnson provides nothing more than an occasional breather for Kamara at a thin position. Hard-nosed FB Adam Prentice has performed very well as a short yardage runner in recent weeks and is a ferocious lead blocker in two-back sets.
Eagles Run Defense
– 20.5 points per game (10th)
– 120.7 rushing yards/game (18th)
– 4.6 per rush (24th)
– 13 rushing touchdowns (14th)
– 83 tackles for loss
– 39% 3rd Down Percentage (14th)
Philadelphia held three of their first four opponents under 100 yards rushing, but have done so just twice in their last 11 contests. They’ve allowed just two 100-yard rushers and four other backs to gain at least 70 on the ground.
The Eagles present the challenge of the league’s deepest crew of defensive tackles. Veteran Fletcher Cox (6 tackles for loss) is the household name of the unit, but Javon Hargrave has been the most disruptive. Hargrave’s 50 tackles are the most on the team at the position, which includes nine for loss.
First-round pick Jordan Davis has been a monstrous interior addition. Davis, a 6’6″ and 340-Lb. behemoth, left last week’s game with a concussion. If he can’t go, the defense may be vulnerable against the run.
In five games without an injured Davis earlier this season, the Eagles allowed an average of 134 yards on the ground. Milton Williams (7 tackles for loss), Linval Joseph, and veteran Pro Bowler Ndamukong Suh round out a formidable depth chart.
Philadelphia isn’t nearly as deep at defensive end, but Josh Sweat and Brandon Graham are an outstanding duo. Sweat leads the team with 15 tackles for loss, while Graham has added nine of his own. Haason Reddick, listed as an outside linebacker, often slides up into an end spot, especially in passing situations.
Underrated MLB T.J. Edwards leads the defense with 138 tackles, including eight for loss. Edwards is a solid instinctual player with good sideline-to-sideline pursuit. Kyzir White is Reddick’s complement on the weak side, while promising rookie Nakobe Dean provides depth.
Former Saint Chauncey Gardner-Johnson will likely miss his fifth straight game with injury. However, Eagles strong safeties Marcus Epps and K’Von Wallace are still active in run support. The rest of the Philadelphia secondary swarms to the ball consistently.
What to Expect
Over three career games against Philadelphia, Kamara has averaged 64 yards rushing and nearly 6.5 per carry. In losses to the Eagles in each of the last two years, New Orleans fell behind by multiple scores and had to abandon the running game.
For the Saints to avoid the same fate, they’ll need to be balanced and have success with the run early. They must especially have success on early downs to avoid third-and-long situations for their passing game.
New Orleans has had success when lining up Kamara and Hill together in the backfield in recent weeks, with Kamara even taking direct snaps at times. Look for that strategy to continue in hopes of keeping Philadelphia’s linebackers off balance. For it to have any success, the Saints offensive line must get push at the line of scrimmage and open up rushing lanes, especially against the Eagles big-bodied tackles.
Teams that have had success against Philadelphia have done so because they’ve been able to run the ball. For the Saints to pull off a Week 17 upset, their running game must pave the way and control the game.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.