The New Orleans Saints are in the middle of a huge transformation on defense, switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defensive scheme. But the defense isn’t the only unit undergoing change.
There will be some big changes—although slightly less substantial—on offense too. Running back Pierre Thomas told Larry Holder of The Times-Picayune in May that head coach Sean Payton told the team the run game will be a major focus in 2013:
When we had our first team meeting, he talked about that. He said we definitely need to get back to that ground game.
There's going to be more focus this year on that ground game than any year. He said we've got to get back to running the ball, having 100-yard games non-stop. I can't wait. I'm excited and I know everybody else is excited.
That’s an extremely bold statement for a coach who makes the game plan for a team that has Drew Brees under center and is known for lighting up the scoreboard via the passing game.
New Orleans has led the league in passing yards in each of the last two seasons and hasn’t finished lower than No. 4 since 2005, when the Saints finished at No. 14 in the NFL (Brees didn’t show up in New Orleans until 2006).
Over that same time span the Saints haven’t produced much in the running game, other than two glaring outliers. Between 2006 and 2012 (Once again, the Brees years) the Saints have finished No. 25 or lower in the NFL in rushing four times and once in the low teens. Only twice did the Saints finish in the top 10 in rushing in the NFL—in 2009 and 2011.
Everyone remembers the Saints’ 2009 season that culminated in a 13-3 regular season and a Super Bowl victory. In 2011, the Saints were once again 13-3. In fact, those two seasons, where the Saints finished sixth in the league in rushing both times, they enjoyed their best regular-season records during the Brees years. At no other time was New Orleans better than 13-3.
If that’s not a good enough reason for the Saints to focus more on the run game in 2013, there’s more empirical data to further make the case at the game-by-game level.
Since Thomas revealed Payton’s desire to have “100-yard games non-stop” it’s important to know just how successful the Saints have been since 2006, when they rushed for 100 yards or more per game.
In the 112 regular-season games since 2006, New Orleans has eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark 63 times. The Saints are 52-11 in those games. That means the Saints are 17-32 in the 49 games since 2006 where the team did not rush for at least 100 yards.
See why Payton wants “100-yard games non-stop?”
The Saints aren’t winning more because the team reaches that magical 100-yard mark, the point is that when New Orleans runs the ball well, it opens up the defense for Brees. If opposing defenses have to key in on stopping the run, Brees can absolutely wreak havoc through the air.
Even after trading Chris Ivory in the offseason to the New York Jets, New Orleans still has three viable running back threats on the roster.
Mark Ingram has enjoyed a solid training camp as Mike Triplett of The Times-Picayune observed. He said Ingram "has looked strong, fast, fluid and a little slimmer—a result of being fully healthy for the first time throughout an entire offseason since he joined the NFL."
Triplett believes Ingram will blossom past his short-yardage role with the Saints and play a bigger part this season. Ingram may not be ready to take over as a feature back, but Triplett believes preseason games will go a long way toward determining how Ingram’s role will grow.
If Ingram can’t emerge as a feature back, Thomas is there with the tools. He and Ingram can both explode downhill and churn yardage while Darren Sproles is fantastic in space and an intriguing option as a change-of-pace back.
If all three can remain healthy—something that’s been an issue in recent seasons—Payton may be able draw up game plans to utilize the strengths of each and the differences in their individual styles to the Saints' advantage.
The key, however, is getting to that 100-yard mark. If the Saints can run the ball effectively, no matter if it’s a committee approach or one of the trio puts the rushing duties on his back and pushes forward, this offense works better.
And it wins way more football games too.