When it came to defending the run in 2013, the New Orleans Saints were hot and cold.
For starters, they held some of the NFL’s elite backs — 1,000-yard rushers Matt Forte, Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch — to just 55, 48 and 45 yards. And they held DeAngelo Williams, who has had some huge games against them, to 119 yards over two matchups.
On the flip side, they gave up big yardage to former teammate Chris Ivory, DeMarco Murray and rookie Zac Stacy. All in all, they allowed 111.6 yards per game to rank 19th in the league.
But the Saints, who were better against the run in the second half of the season, know their biggest challenge awaits in Saturday night’s NFC wild-card playoff game at the Philadelphia Eagles.
Under rookie coach Chip Kelly, who brought his up-tempo offense with him from the University of Oregon, the Eagles led the NFL in rushing at 160.4 yards per game and yards per carry at 5.1 while averaging 31.3 attempts per game. The man who’s responsible for most of that production is five-year veteran LeSean McCoy, who averaged 5.1 yards per carry to lead the league at 1,607 yards. He also had nine touchdowns.
No one has to tell the Saints that priority No. 1, if they hope to go deep into the playoffs, is to contain McCoy. The former University of Pittsburgh star had 268 yards more than Forte, his closest competitor for the rushing title.
“Obviously he’s the No. 1 running back in the NFL,” Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette said. “We haven’t been great at stopping the run, so it’s crucial to get him out of his game and let us do what we do.
“Of course, we’re going to have a few wrinkles for him,” he said with a smile, “but I’m not able to talk about that.”
Galette said he hated to say it, but he noted the shifty, 5-foot-11, 208-pound McCoy reminds him of Pro Football Hall of Famer Barry Sanders.
“He’s an elusive and dynamic runner with his footwork,” Galette said. “He can turn 5-yard losses into 35-yard gains. ... We can’t let them get in third-and-short situations. It’s going to have to be third-and-6 or third-and-7 because, if it’s third-and-3, they’ll run it. He’ll exploit the edges, so we’ll have to be disciplined and gap-sound.”
Inside linebacker Curtis Lofton, the top tackler on a team that has done a pretty good job of tackling this season after ranking last in the NFL a year ago by allowing 147.6 rushing yards per game, said the Saints have been better in not giving up the long runs.
“We can give up the 10- and 12-yard gains (to McCoy),” he said. “The thing we cannot do is give up the big-hitter. We’ve given up some this year, but we seem to rally back and play solid defense the rest of the game.”
The longest run allowed by the Saints this year was 52 yards by Ivory, and they also gave up a 50-yarder to Steven Jackson. Still, they gave up just 27 runs of 15 yards or longer on 387 attempts.
“I’ll take that every year,” Lofton said.
The Saints were extremely upset after Ivory had runs of 52, 30 and 27 yards and piled up 139 yards against them in a 26-20 Jets win Nov. 3, but they buckled down after that.
They allowed 121.3 yards per game in the first eight outings but cut that to 102.0 in the second half of the year — which included Stacy’s 133-yard performance in a 27-16 win for the Rams.
They also dropped their yards allowed per carry from 4.8 in the first half of the season to 4.3 in the final eight games. So keeping close tabs on McCoy is a must, Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan said.
“(McCoy) has had a great season, definitely,” Cameron said. “He’s one of the top backs in the league this year, so we’ll have to be on our best defense.”