Between head coach Sean Payton (when he's present) and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr., the New Orleans Saints have two of the best minds in all of football. They have created an offensive playbook that features dozens upon dozens of route combinations and formations that have given the team one of the league's most potent and prolific offenses while simultaneously giving defenses endless fits.
The passing game is anchored by quarterback Drew Brees, and the running game is anchored by...?
Who is the running game anchored by?
First-round pick Mark Ingram? No. Starting tailback Pierre Thomas? Nope. Darren Sproles? Try again.
The Saints' running game is arguably the league's least imaginative and statistically ranks last, contributing a paltry 72 yards per game despite having some of the most talented tailbacks in the league.
Darren Sproles, in particular, has been relatively quiet from the backfield this season. He has registered only 26 carries through the first eight weeks, including zero in the first two weeks, despite spending the majority of his snaps in the backfield, according to Mike Clay of Pro Football Focus.
What's further puzzling about Sproles' production distribution is that he only accounts for 19 percent of the Saints' running game and is averaging 3.5 carries per game. The 3.5 carries per game is down from last year's five carries that he averaged per game. Both years he's averaged at least 4.5 yards per carry, which is tied or the highest of all runners on the roster.
I understand the offense's preference for a running back by committee approach, but at what point do the Saints give their most talented ball-carrier more carries?
Consider these names: Joique Bell, Brandon Bolden, Bilal Powell, Jacquizz Rodgers, Curtis Brinkley, Shaun Draughn and Jackie Battle. Those are all running backs who have more carries than Darren Sproles. There's something slightly wrong with that.
It's not just how much they are using Sproles, its also how. The Saints have used him on several run concepts, including reverse, toss, draw and lead. Sproles has had success on these run concepts, as evidenced throughout the season, including a toss play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that saw Sproles get into open space from a "1-1" (one tailback, one tight end) formation.
But one of the things I can't fathom is why the Saints not only run Sproles more but run him with more than the aforementioned concepts. Why not use him more on inside and outside zone stretches? These two concepts would maximize Sproles' talents, most notably his quick feet and vision.
Time and time again, Darren Sproles has shown the ability to find the cutback lane by quickly chopping his feet prior to making jaw-dropping and slicing cutbacks to the backside of the defense. This comes in handy on the inside and outside concepts because finding the cutback lane is paramount if the play-side running lane does not open up.
Sproles exhibited this ability in multiple games this season, including against the Green Bay Packers in Week 4 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 7.
The latter was particularly impressive, as it came from a shotgun set with Sproles offset to Drew Brees' left. Initially facing a seven-man box from the Buccaneers, Sproles took the handoff and prepared to execute an inside zone stretch by reading the play-side guard's outside hip, which tells him which direction to run the ball.
If the outside hip of the guard is turned to the inside, it means the guard has sealed off the defender and created an alley to run through. If the outside hip is outside, Sproles has to look for the cutback lane because no alley was created. The only other time Sproles would cut back is if the defender has penetrated into the backfield, consequently negating any play-side running lane.
Penetration is exactly what occurred as his center failed to establish a new line of scrimmage, forcing Sproles to stop his feet and quickly turn them back to the inside of the formation where he found daylight in the C-gap between the backside blocker and offensive tackle. Sproles' quick feet and acceleration further helped, enabling him to get into the open field for what amounted to a large gain.
Moreover, some of the reasons given for Darren Sproles' lack of carries have been that he's already doing too much. Between returning the ball, catching and running, perhaps he is doing too much. It's also been said, including by Drew Brees according to Chris Collinsworth during the Week 9 broadcast of the Denver Broncos, that he may not be able to take the pounding because of his stature.
However, that isn't an excuse for only 3.5 carries per game. That is a small number of carries for one of the league's most explosive and dangerous tailbacks, especially one that can take advantage of his lack of size, as noted by his left tackle Jermon Bushrod.
“He’s explosive, especially when he can get to the edge, whether you’ve handed it to him, pitched it to him or thrown it to him.
“And then, because he’s so short, he can maneuver around a little bit more than some guys.”
Maneuvering around is one of Sproles' specialties and comes in handy on zone run concepts, because he's able to stretch the run very wide (whether it's the inside or outside zone concept), forcing defenders to widen out even further as they attempt to locate him and consequently leave the cutback lane wide open on the backside of the formation.
More carries for Darren Sproles can only benefit the team, which prides itself on explosive plays.
Although he's run on toss, draw and lead concepts, he and the Saints would benefit the most by giving him more carries (overall) on inside and outside zone stretches because his talents—especially his quick feet and vision—would be maximized as he strikes fear into defenses with his home-run ability.