A lot has been made about the New Orleans Saints and their lack of a commitment to the running game thus far this season, by fans and writers alike.
This lukewarm approach to the ground attack was highlighted by the mere 13 times the Saints ran the ball against the Giants. It doesn’t get much better if you include the season opener against the Raiders.
All told, the Saints have rushed the ball a paltry 35 times, which is the second fewest attempts in the league, behind the Washington Redskins.
The issue wasn’t put into focus after Week 1 because the offense still managed to put up 34 points.
However, after the pedestrian outing against the Giants, it’s apparent the Saints would have benefited from getting their backs — especially top dog Mark Ingram — more carries.
In limited work Ingram is averaging over 4 yards per carry on the season.
There are added benefits that come from a grinding running game.
Nov 1, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) hands off to running back Mark Ingram (22) during the first half of a game against the New York Giants at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Giants 52-49. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
On the offensive side of the ball, it causes linebackers and safeties to creep up, which sets up devastating play action opportunities and allows the Saints to call their hallmark “shot plays” — where Brees throws deep downfield to either WR’s Brandin Cooks or Willie Snead.
It also allows the defense to get some much needed rest, which helps the pass rush and the players on the back end to fly to the football with the speed and aggression necessary on that side of the football.
In 2014, the Dallas Cowboys famously used this exact sort of formula en route to a 12-4 record and an NFC East Championship.
Head coach Sean Payton had this to say with regard to the ground game:
“I think that from a rushing standpoint I thought we had some early positive runs, and all of a sudden we end up with the game over with 13 rushing attempts. I don’t like the balance there.”
Reading between the lines, I would say it’s a safe bet the Saints come out and try to establish the run versus the Falcons.
Oct 15, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (22) is tackled by Atlanta Falcons defensive end Tyson Jackson (94) and middle linebacker Paul Worrilow (55) during the fourth quarter of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Falcons 31-21. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
However, balance for the Saints does not need to look the same as it does for other teams.
The Saints do not need to run the ball 30-35 times a game, nor should they.
Even though they have five running backs on the roster, there’s no question that the team’s best player is Drew Brees. .
The Saints also have a plethora of receiving weapons in Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead IV, Michael Thomas, and yes, even Coby Fleener.
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Perhaps Saints guard Jahri Evans, who knows this offense inside and out, said it best.
“Obviously, you want to get after it in the run game, but when you have a dynamic quarterback like Drew who can just pick people off, then you got to play to your strengths, and he’s definitely a strength.”
In their first game against the Raiders, the Saints ran the ball 22 times on 65 offensive plays.
This is actually a good target for the Saints to aim for. While the line has played better than expected the first two games, this is not a dominant line like the Dallas Cowboys have.
A lot of their success, especially against the Raiders, was due to the scheming by Sean Payton, little things like keeping in a tight end to “chip” Khalil Mack before going out for a route.
Sep 11, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) throws a pass against the Oakland Raiders during the second quarter of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
If the Saints can run the ball effectively about one-third of the time, it’s a legitimate enough threat that opposing teams will be forced to honor the run game.
This sets up the lethal passing attack led by Drew Brees which has always been, and always will be the core of Sean Payton’s offense.
I’m all for a little more balance, and it goes without saying that 13 rushing attempts is far too few — especially with five running backs on the roster.
But fans will be disappointed if they expect a commitment to the running game like what the Texans or Broncos employ.
New Orleans will always be pass first, and with Drew Brees and the new weapons they have, I still think that’s a good thing.