Saints’ run defense to be tested

McClatchy news servicesJanuary 3, 2014 

If New Orleans’ fourth-ranked defense is vulnerable in one area, it is stopping the run.

The Saints ranked 19th in that area during the regular season, yielding 111.6 yards per game.

When they open the NFC playoffs Saturday in Philadelphia, they’ll have to contend with LeSean McCoy, the NFL’s top rusher, and a couple of capable backups who help form the league’s top running game.

“They have a fantastic running back,” Saints coach Sean Payton said, referring to McCoy. “They do a great job with misdirection, creating those running lanes and really keeping you off balance defensively.”

The Eagles have averaged 160 yards rushing per game. McCoy rushed for 1,607 yards and nine touchdowns this season. Bryce Brown has rushed for 314 yards, and former University of Washington star Chris Polk has been impressive when given the chance, averaging 8.9 yards on 11 carries.

“Our running back situation is outstanding,” Philadelphia offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. “Obviously, we have a starter, but when we put Bryce and Chris in there, they have done a really, really good job. They both can run the ball, they both catch the ball well, and they certainly both can pass protect.”

Saints defensive players heap praise upon Philadelphia’s ground game but also aren’t shy about expressing confidence they can contain it.

Asked whether the Saints should be worried about what looks like a statistical mismatch, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said, “No,” without hesitation.

“We had a couple of bad games that made that (yards rushing allowed) number a little skewed, but other than that, we do a great job versus the run,” Lofton said.

Some of the Saints’ individual results back up Lofton’s statement. The Saints allowed just 88 yards rushing in a victory over Buffalo, which ranked second in the NFL in rushing, and 81 yards in a win over San Francisco, which ranked third.

“We face elite talent every week, and sometimes you have missteps,” defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “You’re not going to be perfect on every play, and that’s what we’ve got to do for the playoffs. We have to try to be perfect.”

Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette called McCoy “a beast” and “right now the best back in the NFL.”

He said stopping the Eagles’ ground game would be critical in Saturday’s game and going forward, should the Saints advance.

“If we stop them, that’s going to boost our confidence through the roof, knowing that whoever we play the next week is not going to be a better running team than they are,” Galette said.

BUCCANEERS HIRE SMITH

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made it official Thursday, announcing that they had finalized a five-year contract with Lovie Smith to be their new coach. He will be introduced at a news conference Monday.

Bucs co-chairman Bryan Glazer called it an “exciting day” for the organization.

“We knew from the start of our search that he was the ideal man to lead our team into a new era,” Glazer said.

Smith, 55, replaces Greg Schiano, who was fired Monday after a 4-12 finish. He was 11-21 in two seasons.

Smith was the linebackers coach with the Bucs from 1996-2000. He was 81-63 in nine seasons as Chicago’s coach, earning three playoff berths and leading the 2006 team to the Super Bowl, where the Bears lost to the Indianapolis Colts.

The coach’s tenure in Chicago came to an abrupt halt a year ago, when Smith was fired after finishing 10-6 but missing the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons.

EXTRA POINTS

Quarterback Jay Cutler signed a seven-year contract extension with the Bears. According to a Fox Sports report, the contract averages $18 million over the first three years. … The Patriots re-signed wide receiver Austin Collie and placed receiver Josh Boyce on injured reserve. It is Collie’s third stint with the Patriots this season. … Vikings linebacker Erin Henderson was arrested on New Year’s Day for suspicion of driving while impaired. He was arrested Nov. 19 on suspicion of DWI and drug possession. … Former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe alleged that he lost his job because of his outspoken support of same-sex marriage. … Former Arena Football League commissioner David Baker was named president and executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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