Observers around the nation continue to question the capacity of this team to deliver when it matters most. Saturday night’s mauling at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys, 24-17, has been officially submitted as Exhibit A. The Cowboys drilled the Saints for 145 rushing yards on the ground, nullified the pass rush, and held on to win a game where the final score did not reflect Dallas’ dominance.
I still like the Saints and I believe that those observers would be wise to view that game in its full context. Sure, the Saints played without Jeremy Shockey and Reggie Bush sustained an injury during the game. That’s hardly the point. Dallas won that game between the trenches. They rode a powerful running game that included a defining knock out blow on Jonathan Vilma delivered by Marion Barber (Lights Out!!). And, the trenches are where the fortunes of the Saints have been determined all season.
- In games in which Sedrick Ellis (the 2nd year defensive tackle out of USC) has played, the Saints have allowed an average of 94.7 yards rushing per game. That would be good enough for 5th in the league overall. Only Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Cincinnati, and Minnesota rank higher.
- In games that Ellis has missed, including Saturday night’s game vs. the Dallas Cowboys, the Saints have allowed a whopping 149.6 yards per game. Over the course of the year, that would tie them at 29th with the Cleveland Browns. Only Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Buffalo have been worse.
The Saints surrendered 161 (Atlanta), 182 (Carolina), 141 (St. Louis), 119 (Tampa), and 145 (Dallas). These are the games that are fresh in the collective contemplation of why the Saints cannot prevail. Sedrick Ellis missed each of these games.
It is worth noting that in games where Ellis played, every single team failed to reach their season’s rushing average, except the New England Patriots who were in the midst of being shell-shocked. The Saints ran less than 50 offensive plays, scored easily, and allowed rushing yards late in a 38-17 classic. Here’s a sample:
- Miami: -11 yards
- N.Y. Jets: -32 yards
- Philadelphia: -28 yards
- Washington: -14 yards
- N. Y. Giants: -41 yards
- Detroit: -67 yards
Many of these teams were forced to play from behind because a prolific Saints offense puts points on the board, but even those teams who kept the games close were not able to hit the mark with Ellis on the field. Thomas Jones managed all of 48 yards on 13 carries. Ronnie Brown amassed 48 yards on 16 carries (Ricky Williams hit ’em up for 80 yards on 9 touches!!). Ahmad Bradshaw also notched 48 yards (10 carries), but Brandon Jacobs only gained 33. Note: Playing from behind does not mean teams must abandon the running game. It is a choice. Not too long ago, the Tennessee Titans trailed the St. Louis Rams (The Greatest Show on Turf) by 16 points entering the 4th quarter of a Super Bowl. The Titans didn’t panic. They ran the ball and forced their way back into the game. The Titans powerful run game allowed them to seize momentum and fight back into a tie. They eventually lost the game, but too few teams forget the lesson. Trailing does not mean abandoning the run.
I believe that Sedrick Ellis will be well rested and healthy by the time the Saints suit up for their first playoff game at the Super Dome. I also believe that teams will find it very difficult to run against this defense — and quite a few pundits will be very surprised. If Ellis doesn’t play, you can expect the Saints run defense to look a great deal like the unit that allows 150 yards per game — and if they do that, they won’t beat anyone.