New Orleans Saints' No. 1 run defense faces only 100-yard rushers in 70 games in Philadelphia Eagles

METAIRIE, La. – Seventy games.

That’s how long the New Orleans Saints’ run of dominant run defense has lasted, including the playoffs. They rank No. 1 in the NFL over that span in rushing yards allowed per game (88.2) and per carry (3.73). They’re even more stifling than usual this season (72.9 and 3.07).

And during that time, they have allowed only two 100-yard rushers.

But here’s the catch -- both came in the same game when the Saints played at the Philadelphia Eagles last December. Quarterback Jalen Hurts ran the ball 18 times for 106 yards in his NFL starting debut and running back Miles Sanders ran 14 times for 115 yards and two touchdowns.

“I’m well aware of it,” Sean Payton deadpanned as his Saints (5-4) prepare for a return trip to Philly to face a team that has seemingly gotten even better at running the ball over the past month.

The Eagles (4-6) are averaging 41 rushing attempts for 209 yards per game over the past three weeks, even with Sanders sidelined by an ankle injury.

“Holy cow, they’ve done a good job,” Payton said. “I think they’re even more committed when you watch the time of possession and watch the games. So they’ve obviously improved and gotten better. But it starts with the quarterback and how Hurts is playing. He’s got the same skillset as a lot of running backs -- and throws the ball well down the field. I think he's playing exceptionally well.”

Obviously the Saints have faced other elusive quarterbacks – and they’ll face another just four days later when they host Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills on Thanksgiving night. Not to mention the reunited Cam Newton and Carolina Panthers in a pivotal Week 17 matchup.

But when asked if Hurts presents the same issues as “typical running quarterbacks,” Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan quickly shot back, “I wouldn’t call him typical.”

“I mean, as shifty as he is and the speed he has, he’s probably as close to Mike Vick with that elusive speed, how deadly he is with his ability to scramble and extend these plays, as you’re gonna see,” Jordan said of Hurts, who ranks second among quarterbacks behind Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson this season with 549 yards and 5.72 yards per carry.

“For a defensive lineman, it’s something you hate to see because you’re not really allowed to rush now,” Jordan lamented.

Saints defensive end Carl Granderson agreed, stressing it’s even more imperative to remain disciplined in assignments.

“This game is pretty much like you’re playing Navy or Air Force,” Granderson said of colleges known for option offenses. “Back at Wyoming, I played Air Force every year. So you gotta do your job. Everybody has an assignment. You cannot just run up the field thinking you’re gonna get a sack. That's what (Hurts) wants you to do.”

Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins described the challenge as “simple math.” Normally, when a quarterback isn’t involved in a run play, the defense has an 11-on-10 advantage.

“But when the quarterback’s running, it’s 11-on-11, which changes coverage,” Jenkins said – which also makes the threat of a play-action pass more dangerous. “You’ve gotta decide if you want to play single-high, split-safety, do you want to go zero across the board where you’re better against the run but more vulnerable against the pass?"

Meanwhile, Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen has done an outstanding job remaking his unit into one of the NFL’s best over the past five years – and reviving his potential as a head coaching candidate in the process.

Allen lasted less than three years as head coach of the Oakland Raiders from 2012-14 after beginning his career as an assistant with the Atlanta Falcons and Saints and as a coordinator with the Denver Broncos. Then he returned to the Saints as a senior assistant and eventually replaced Rob Ryan as coordinator during the 2015 season.

When asked if he learned to place a greater emphasis on run defense over the years, Allen said you’re always learning and developing.

“I know this,” Allen said. “Just because you can stop the run doesn’t mean you’re gonna be a great defense. But I also know that if you can’t stop the run, you won’t be a great defense.”

Personnel helps too. All-Pro defensive end Jordan, All-Pro linebacker Demario Davis and standout defensive tackle David Onyemata have been three of the constants in New Orleans since 2018. And the Saints have long had a preference for big, tall, long-armed defensive ends equally suited to defend the run and pass (like Jordan, first-round draft picks Marcus Davenport and Payton Turner, Granderson and Tanoh Kpassagnon).

Rookie second-round linebacker Pete Werner has also been a strong addition. Jenkins said the front seven deserves a ton of credit since they’ve been so consistent against the run, even without using safeties to help load the box very often.

First-year Eagles coach Nick Sirianni and offensive tackle Lane Johnson both praised the Saints' personnel, with Johnson saying Jordan's size and versatility at 6-foot-4, 287 pounds makes him a unique challenge.

"Anytime you get that combination of good players, a good coach, the defense is going to look good,” Sirianni said, adding that he has “always had a lot of respect for” Allen dating back to their days in the AFC West together.

“No. 1 is we have a lot of guys that have bought into the fundamentals and technique of being able to play the run. And I think that’s unique,” Allen said. “They take pride in it. They work their tails off at it.”

And Allen is confident they’ll do a better job in Sunday's rematch after that pride took a rare hit last year.

“We certainly studied last year’s tape a lot to see what we could’ve done better. And there’s a few schematic differences in terms of what they do,” Allen said. “But certainly I’d say we probably feel a little more prepared this year than we were last year.”

-- ESPN Eagles reporter Tim McManus contributed to this report