In beating the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night the New Orleans Saints discovered something that has been missing all season—a running game. Mark Ingram hopped in the Delorean and looked like the Heisman Trophy version of himself with 145 yard and a touchdown on 14 carries (over 10 yards a carry!). Meanwhile Pierre Thomas averaged 5.1 yards a carry on 17 carries totaling 87 yards a carry. Though this running game was a breath of fresh air, it is important that we temper expectations.
The Dallas Cowboys defense is not very good and were decimated by injuries before the game. And then during the game, they lost the heart of their defense in Sean Lee and Demarcus Ware, as well as their starting safety to add to the loss of their starting nose tackle Jason Hatcher. In addition, the Saints were able to go up by a large amount by halftime, so killing the clock became a larger priority of the game plan.
However, not to put a complete wet blanket on the Saints success there were some positive takeaways. Sean Payton made a better commitment to running the ball early. The only reason he really strayed away from it was because Lee was injured which left the middle of the Cowboys defense completely overmatched, a weakness too juicy to resist. So it seems Payton has learned his lesson from the Jets game.
In addition, he has simplified the attack by giving the lion share of the load to just two backs. Before, it got to the point where he was trying to feed Darren Sproles, Thomas, Khiry Robinson, and whoever else, not allowing any of them to get in a rhythm. Now it seems Sproles will be used more exclusively as a receiver with him running very rarely.
Also, there was a lot more variety in the running plays used instead of just straight dive plays. We saw some stretches and off tackles as well. This, in combination with runs out of passing personnel groups, made the runs a bit more unpredictable.
Finally, there is question about Ingram. Has he turned the corner? Hard to say. It has only been one game and it was against the one of the worst defenses. What I can say from watching him is that he looks legitimately healthy for the first time since he has been drafted. He looks a little leaner, and is running with more energy and emotion (and maybe fear of losing his job).
Also, his vision seems to have gotten better as he made a couple backside cuts and wasn’t constantly running into his own lineman. So the answer is unclear, but if he has in fact learned something from sitting on the bench, this offense has become that much scarier.
So what should Saints fans expect going forward? The Saints play 3 of the best run defenses in the next 4 games with San Francisco, Seattle, and Carolina; so it will be hard to expect great output against any of those teams. However, what matters is, not so much the production, but the amount of attempts.
The Saints will always be a passing team, but the Saints lose when Drew Brees throws it over 40 times. If the Saints can run it well enough so Brees is only throwing it 30-40 times, the offense will be alright. More than anything, the offense just has to stay patient with the run game, even if it isn’t producing, because in the big picture, balance is the key to wins, and believe me, the next few are going to be tough to pick up.