Tactical Advantage: How Darren Sproles and the Saints Can Run over the 49ers

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Tactical Advantage: How Darren Sproles and the Saints Can Run over the 49ers
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

There are a few things certain in life: death, taxes and Drew Brees throwing the football.

The New Orleans Saints quarterback, with the help of his brilliant head coach Sean Payton, will throw the ball for yardage and scores no matter who's on the field—with him or against him. On the strength of Brees' brain and arm, the Saints have the NFL's No. 2 scoring offense through Week 10, per Pro Football Reference, racking up 29.4 points per game.

That doesn't mean the Saints are invincible, though.

The 7-2 Saints aren't at their unstoppable best unless their multifaceted running attack balances Brees' Yoda-like mastery of the football Force. Against the San Francisco 49ers and their stout run defense, this is going to be a tough task.

Are Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram and company up to the task?

 

How the Saints Roll

The Saints are famous for a wide-open multireceiver passing attack that stretches the field. Turnover at wide receiver has left the Saints unusually thin, though. Tight end Jimmy Graham's taken yet another step forward, and fullback Jeb Collins has become a valuable part of the ground game.

All told, the Saints have a far more conventional offense—and ground game—than their reputation would suggest.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Darren Sproles has the most name recognition of the Saints tailbacks; the small, shifty back is usually harder to bring down than his stature suggests. This season, though, Sproles has been far more dangerous as a pass-catcher (and a backfield decoy) than as a runner. With just 130 yards and two touchdowns on 35 carries so far this year, Sproles is fourth on the Saints in total rushing and fourth in average yards per carry.

Undrafted rookie free agent Khiry Robinson has turned some heads this season, despite being buried on the depth chart. Listed at 6'0", 220 pounds, Robinson has 33 carries for 146 yards and a score; his 4.4 yards-per-attempt average is second best on the Saints.

Mark Ingram splits the size difference between Sproles and Robinson; he stands 5'9" and weighs 215 pounds. The 2011 first-round pick struggled in his first two years but leads the 2013 Saints with 5.6 yards per carry. Ingram, well-suited to a one-cut power run game, is hitting his stride as the Saints put more beef between the tackles.

Last, but far from least, is Pierre Thomas. The closest thing the Saints have to an every-down back, Thomas is a dangerous receiving threat like Sproles—but he can run his 5'11", 215-pound frame inside, as well. Thomas is only averaging 3.8 yards per carry this season, but he can stay on the field in almost any situation.

Behind Graham, Thomas and Sproles are the Saints' No. 2 and No. 3 receivers, respectively. Together, they've accounted for a combined 90 catches, 758 yards and five touchdowns, per Pro Football Reference. Ingram and Robinson's running, though, are making them tough to keep on the shelf.

 

Full Speed Ahead

The foundation of the Saints rushing attack is right guard Jahri Evans. A first-team All Pro each of the last four seasons running, Evans is undoubtedly one of the best guards in football. Simply running behind him can be devastatingly effective, especially when he gets to the second level and overwhelms linebackers.

Let's look at how the Saints used Evans, Ingram and execution to run roughshod over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 10:

The Saints are in 02 personnel, with three receivers, Collins and Ingram in. The Cowboys are in their base 4-3:

Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report

Off the snap, Evans helps center Brian de la Puente block the Cowboys nose tackle; Evans will quickly release and attack the middle linebacker. Collins takes on the outside linebacker, while right tackle Zach Strief attacks the left defensive end:

Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report

Evans reaches the second level just fine, the running lanes are well-blocked and Ingram has a choice to make. He can either follow directly behind the blocking or cut it back:

Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report

He cut it back and picked up 14 yards. On the very next play, they ran the same play and Ingram rumbled for another 34 yards.

Whether it's Ingram running hard to the hole and cutting back, Thomas running to the hole and breaking for the sideline or Sproles bouncing it outside altogether, if Evans can get to the second level and seal off a linebacker like this, the Saints will be able to pick up positive yardage over and over again.

The last time the Saints faced a physical, run-stopping 3-4 defense like the 49ers, however, things didn't go well. Evans was out with a hamstring injury, and the Saints were overwhelmed at the point of attack. Payton knew this and dialed up very few runs.

Here's what happened when they tried their bread-and-butter play behind fill-in Tim Lelito against standout Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell:

Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report

Campbell walked right through Lelito; he was one of two Cardinals who met and dropped Thomas two yards behind the line of scrimmage.

The Saints, without Evans, rushed three times for minus-five yards in the first half. They tried a few sweeps and tosses to get outside but basically abandoned the inside run game until the second half, when Brees and the passing game built up a 24-7 lead.

San Francisco's seventh-ranked passing defense, allowing 211.7 yards per game, per Pro Football Reference, is significantly harder to throw on than the Cardinals' 17th-ranked secondary (allowing 243.7). If Brees and the Saints want to get control of the game early, they'll need Evans to lead the way.

The way the 49ers stop the run is unique: They rely on their two standout inside linebackers, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, to get off blocks and get to the running back.

On passing downs, the 49ers often use a 2-4-5 nickel alignment, confident that Willis and Bowman will be able to make the stop despite only two linemen occupying blockers in front of them. Often, they'll run-blitz one of their hard-hitting safeties.

Here's a 2nd-and-10 situation against the Tennessee Titans that shows how the Saints can attack this:

Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report

The Titans are in a three-receiver set like the Saints above, except with a tight end instead of a fullback. Quarterback Jake Locker is also in shotgun, with tailback Chris Johnson beside him. This will be an off-tackle run, with the left guard pulling and leading the way. Let's watch right guard Chance Warmack, though (highlighted in yellow):

Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report

So far, so good. All the blocks are setting up nicely, and Johnson has a huge lane opening up. Unfortunately, tight end Delanie Walker is about to blow his assignment, linebacker Ahmad Brooks:

Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report

Every other block sets up perfectly: Both Titans tackles are releasing to block Willis and Bowman, left guard Andy Levitre is pulling to take care of the safety and Warmack is holding his ground. Johnson does a Sproles-like jump-cut completely around Brooks, getting the tailback into the second level with a convoy led by Warmack:

Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report

Unfortunately, Levitre's block on safety Donte Whitner doesn't hold, and Whitner closes to make the tackle. Watch, though, as Warmack drives defensive end Ray McDonald five yards downfield to lead Johnson:

Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report

For the Saints, Evans is their right guard, and he should be able to overpower McDonald just as easily. If the Saints want to run out of passing situations, pulling a guard to run power behind Evans is going to get five yards—or maybe more—all day long.

On running downs, the job gets trickier. If De la Puente can handle 49ers nose tackle Glenn Dorsey with just a chip from Evans, though, Evans should be able to release to the second level, where he and Collins should be able to fend off Willis and Bowman.

If the Saints continue to focus their run attack behind Evans, they'll be able to attack the 49ers run defense at its weakest point—and run right over them. If the 49ers try to compensate by bringing down Whitner, Brees will have a field day.

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