Since the inception of the Drew Brees-Sean Payton era, the identity of the New Orleans Saints has been a potent, high flying aerial attack. Every passing record, at one point in time, has been broken or threatened by Brees and Payton. However, despite the success in the passing game, team success has always been determined by the ground game. In the Saints’ two most successful seasons (2009, 2011) the Saints ranked 6th in rushing. In seasons where the Saints weren’t as successful, they ranked outside the top 25 in rushing.
Knowing this, the coaching staff is sure to put an emphasis on the ground game this season. One can already see in the first three preseason games, there has been extra attention paid to staying balanced in play calling. The questions is who is going to run the ball and who should run the ball?
In years past, there has always been an even distribution between 3 running backs. At times this worked beautifully, but for the most part, the high congestion in the backfield hasn’t allowed any one running back to get in a rhythm running the ball. This year, Payton looks like he is going cutting down on the mouths to feed which will lead to a more cohesive rushing attack.
This preseason, the much maligned first round pick Mark Ingram has clearly been the best product. He has average 7 yards per carry, has shown great vision, and looks healthier than he has ever been since arriving to New Orleans. Khiry Robinson, the back most believed to supplant Ingram as the number one guy going into this season, has also looked good averaging close to six yard a carry. The Saints offense would be most effective using only these two backs to run the ball.
In 2009, the Saints’ Super Bowl season, the Saints used only two backs for the most part. Pierre Thomas was the primary back, and Mike Bell was the change of pace battering ram. The 2011 team, the team some believe was the most talented team put together, used two back to run the ball, Thomas and Chris Ivory. In addition to the runners, both committees had a scat back used to create mismatches in the passing game; Reggie Bush in 2009 and Darren Sproles in 2011.
Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael will try to emulate that model. Ingram will and should be the primary back with Robinson as a complement. The duo of Ingram and Robinson will be the most physical backfield the Saints have put together in the Brees-Payton era. And this is what they should be going for with Seattle and San Francisco being the main obstacles on the way to the Lombardi trophy.
As the season wears on, don’t be surprised if Ingram is taking up closer to 65-70% of the carries instead of an even 50%. He has looked like the better back and the coaching staff wants to justify their trading up for him in the draft.
With Robinson and Ingram manning the rushing attack, where does that leave fan favorite and New Orleans staple Pierre Thomas? Thomas’ versatility is invaluable to the Saints’ offense. Just like Bush and Sproles were pass catching backs in 2009 and 2011 respectively, Thomas will slide into a similar role this season. In the third preseason game, Thomas lined up as a back, as an inside receiver, and even an outside receiver. Thomas will be the chess piece that can create another mismatch for the defense.
This year, there is really no excuse for the Saints not to have a dominant rushing attack. They have switched to a zone rushing scheme which caters to the one cut, downhill running style that Robinson and Ingram possess. The only thing that can keep the Saints from not being a good running team is play calling. Payton always has a tendency of abandoning the running game too early or not establishing it at all. However, reports are coming out saying Carmichael will call plays which could mean a more balanced attack on a more consistent basis.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter who runs the ball or how the team decides to run the ball. What matters is that they do run the ball. The past has shown, it doesn’t matter how successful one is through the air; without a ground game, the Saints will be mediocre.