Saints defense comes through, stiffens in Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA — The Saints defenders knew they had a challenge ahead entering Philadelphia in a NFC wild-card matchup Saturday night facing quarterback Nick Foles and running back LeSean McCoy, the league’s first duo to lead the league in rushing and passer rating.

Their task took on a further uphill battle when cornerback Keenan Lewis left the game with an apparent head injury in the third quarter, creating a noticeable shift in the defensive backfield that helped ignite a potent Eagles offense that had a 7-6 lead at halftime.

But the defense managed to withstand the surge as they bent, but didn’t break in a 26-24 victory that moved them to the second round next weekend.

Even though both Foles and McCoy and potent wide receiver DeSean Jackson became major threats in the second half, the Saints unit took an early cue from defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Ryan had a picture of his late father, Buddy, in his locker before the game. The elder Ryan had a controversial stint from 1986-90 in Philadelphia before he was fired.

“(Rob Ryan) called us over after they scored their first touchdown and basically gave us a quick pep talk,” said defensive end Cameron Jordan, who had four tackles and 1.5 sacks on the night. “He kept things positive, and we rallied from there.

“We felt that we came into the game with one of the better defenses around. We knew they had a good offense, and it was a matter of stopping them when we had to. It was a matter of us just keeping plugging away. If we could (hold) them, we knew our offense could take over from there.”

The Saints particularly held together in the third quarter when Lewis — arguably their best cover corner — left the game late in the quarter with a head injury. It was then that Philadelphia cut its deficit to 20-14 on McCoy’s 1-yard lounge with 32 seconds remaining.

Foles sought to challenge corner White and replacement corner Rod Sweeting, throwing primarily in their direction.

White was flagged for a 40-yard pass interference penalty when he pushed into Jackson on the New Orleans 3-yard line. Two plays later, Foles drilled a pass to Zach Ertz in the end zone that pushed the Eagles ahead 24-23 with 4:54 left in the game. Philadelphia had scored on its last three possessions.

“It was a challenge for us all night,” said safety Malcolm Jenkins, who had three tackles. “We had to move some people around back there, but we all hung together. We knew (Philadelphia) had a potent offense and (Foles) was throwing to all of (his) targets all night.

“We gave a little, but we didn’t give a lot.”

The Saints allowed 256 total yards to the Eagles, 151 below their game average. They also held Philadelphia to three points below their game average with their 24 point output. The Eagles entered the game with seven wins in their last eight games and accumulated a franchise-high 442 points this season.

McCoy, who rushed for 1,607 yards entering the game, finished with 77 yards overall, 23 below his game average. Foles was 10-for-15 for 97 yards and a touchdown after halftime.

“This was a big one for us,” said linebacker Curtis Lofton, who had four tackles. “We had to battle back all night, but we felt we could get through this.”

“We got through this, and we’re looking forward to the next challenge,” added Jordan. “Overall, I thought our defense played well. We just have to keep moving forward, and we’re happy to be back next week.”