Didinger: Saints running game surprises
Nick Foles was sacked twice, but when he walked off the field Saturday night, he had given his team the lead. The defense just couldn't hold it. (AP)
Ten observations from a thoroughly disappointing finish to a remarkable season:
1. The biggest shock to me in the Eagles’ 26-24 playoff loss to the Saints Saturday night at the Linc (see Instant Replay) -- the Eagles’ fourth consecutive playoff loss -- was the Saints’ ability to gash the Eagles on the ground with a lightly regarded running attack that was missing its leading rusher in Pierre Thomas. The Saints had only five games with more than 100 rushing yards during the regular season and averaged just 92 yards per game. And the Eagles finished the season holding 10 of their last 12 opponents below 100 yards. But the Eagles just couldn’t stop the Saints’ ground attack, which churned out 185 yards on 35 carries. It wasn’t missed tackles as much as the Saints’ offensive line out-manning the Eagles’ defensive front on the line of scrimmage.
2. A big chunk of this loss is on Dave Fipp and his special teams units. Special teams was a constant issue in recent weeks, but it cost the Eagles big time against the Saints. Obviously Alex Henery’s missed field goal and short kickoffs were an issue, but that kickoff play after the Zach Ertz touchdown to give the Eagles a 24-23 lead was fatal. Bad enough that the Eagles let Darren Sproles rocket 39 yards on the return, but Cary Williams committed a 15-yard personal foul for a horse collar as he was tackling him. Just like that, 54 yards and out past midfield in a one-point game. Inexcusable.
3. Nick Foles took a bad sack and had a bad intentional grounding early, but overall he acquitted himself just fine in his first NFL playoff game. Heck, he gave his team a lead with five minutes left in the fourth quarter. Kind of like the Arizona NFC Championship Game -- offense took the lead late in the fourth quarter, but the defense just couldn’t protect the lead. Foles finished 23 for 33 for 195 yards and two touchdowns without a turnover. He walked off the field for the final time this year with the lead.
4. LeSean McCoy’s lack of success was just as baffling as the Saints’ success on the ground. It wasn’t like McCoy wasn’t reading the holes; there just wasn’t anywhere for him to go. McCoy was so dominant over the past month, piling up nearly 600 yards on the ground in five December games. I just didn’t see this coming. I thought this would be a 24-for-141 for him. He had a couple good runs late but still finished 21 for 77, an uncharacteristic 3.7 yards per carry for the NFL's rushing leader.
5. Took Chip Kelly long enough to get DeSean Jackson involved, but once he did, Jackson showed why he is an elite receiver. After being held without a catch in the game’s first 42 minutes, Jackson caught three passes for 53 yards and drew a 40-yard pass interference that set up the Ertz touchdown. Jackson’s too dangerous to not get the ball for 42 minutes. Kelly and Foles have to find ways to get him involved early. Once they did, they started scoring points. Just started too late.
6. Here’s another shocking number: 256. That’s the Eagles’ total yards. The Eagles averaged 417 per game during the regular season, so they came up 161 yards shy of their season average. That’s on Kelly.
7. Very surprised we never saw Bryce Brown, who has been a pretty good change-of-pace back late in the season. Nothing against McCoy, but sometimes fresh legs and a different skill set can be a big challenge for a defense.
8. The Eagles’ defense needs to find a way to stop giving up those 3rd-and-longs. They are just killer. A play like Brees’ conversion of that 3rd-and-12 in the second quarter doesn’t just gobble up 12 yards and give the Saints a new set of downs, it really shifts momentum. The Eagles were very good on 3rd-and-short this year, terrible on 3rd-and-long.
9. Which comes down to pass pressure. The Eagles have been really inconsistent all year getting pressure, and although Trent Cole and Brandon Graham did have sacks -- on the same drive in the second quarter -- the Eagles just didn’t get enough pressure on Brees. They got away with it last week in Dallas. They almost did Saturday night against Brees, but he made just enough plays.
10. Great season. Winning an NFC East title a year after going 4-12 is certainly encouraging. But you never know when your chances are going to come again. Getting to the playoffs this year doesn’t guarantee anything next year, when the Eagles will have a tougher schedule. When you have the lead late in the fourth quarter of a playoff game in your own building, you just can’t lose that game. Right now, it’s tough to see the season as a success, although ultimately it was a huge one. The Eagles had a tremendous opportunity to go down to Carolina next weekend and play for a spot in the NFC Championship Game. They blew it.