Last season, with Sean Payton suspended and Pro Bowl road-grading guard Carl Nicks in Tampa Bay, the Saints rushed for an average of under 100 yards per game -- despite averaging a respectable 4.3 yards per rush. New Orleans rushed on only 35 percent of its offensive plays, the third-fewest rushing attempts among NFL teams last season. Without a consistent ground presence, the Saints' woeful defense was on the field too much and Drew Brees made more errors with the football (19 INTs, three lost fumbles) than a quarterback of his caliber ever should.
Brees had to fit the ball into smaller windows, and as a result, his completion percentage dropped from an amazing 71.2 percent in 2011 to 63 percent last season. With Chris Ivory traded to theNew York Jets but Payton back calling plays, what will New Orleans' ground game look like this season? And more importantly, will it be more effective?
The Saints want to run the football with power to complement the great things Brees & Co. can do through the air. Payton likes to have a big, physical offensive line (especially in the middle) and the ability to dominate defenses at the point of attack, particularly late in games when New Orleans has the lead. The Saints, unlike many other franchises, like to spend money on guards and be strong on the interior, which allows for that power running game and a clean pocket up the middle for the undersized Brees. Under Payton in 2009 and 2011, the Saints had one of the best running games in the NFL -- and won 13 games each of those seasons, including the Super Bowl in '09.
While Nicks obviously won't be back, Ben Grubbs filled in well for him in 2012, and overall, the Saints' run-blocking was very good last year. Jahri Evans is the prototype for what Payton looks for in a guard and is a great player. Between Grubbs and Evans is Brian De La Puente, one of the best centers in football that no one talks about. He is very good in all phases of playing the position, including the important mental side of things, but what De La Puente does best is run-blocking.
There are questions at tackle with Zach Strief manning the right side and Charles Brown and Terron Armstead competing for the left tackle spot to replace Jermon Bushrod. Former No. 2 overall pick Jason Smith could also factor in, but Brown is the clear leader for that position right now. Strief is just mediocre in the run game, while the trio of Brown, Armstead and Smith collectively has an awful lot of ability but is extremely unproven.
New Orleans is likely to use a lot of six offensive linemen personnel groupings, and historically it gets good blocking from its skill position players. This allows the Saints to play both man and zone blocking schemes, leading to a variety of running plays. Guys like Marques Colston have helped spring long runs with some frequency over their careers, and this rushing attack has plenty of big-play ability with Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas.
Sproles can attack the middle with inside draws and even power runs, but he is more of a specialty player that Payton and Brees employ extremely well. Sproles will align anywhere on the field, and the Saints are exceptional at getting mismatches in his favor, especially in the passing game. Even as a receiving option, he can act as an extension of the run game because many of the throws Brees makes to him are such high-percentage options on screens or option routes.
This is a make-or-break year for Ingram, whom New Orleans traded back into the first round of the 2011 draft to acquire. At his best -- and when fully healthy, which has been a major problem -- he is a decisive and powerful downhill runner who can handle a large number of carries. He is also capable of handling most running plays the Saints employ, including inside power zone, counters and off-tackle runs. I think he'll be given the majority of carries this season. But what we have mostly seen from Ingram has been unspectacular. His vision and ability to create space have been questionable, and he needs to develop further as a receiver. I still have high hopes for him, and from everything I've heard, it sounds like his burst and movement skills are back to where they were at Alabama.
Thomas is also a favorite of mine. If Ingram sputters, Thomas could take over the lead role. Although he isn't the most punishing back in the league, he does everything well and is a fantastic option to have on board for a light, medium or heavy load -- depending what the game-day situation calls for. Like Payton's philosophy in the passing game, he believes in spreading the ball out among his runners as well. Thomas is ideal for that philosophy, and unlike Ingram (unless injury occurs), Thomas is not fading away.
The Saints throw the ball a ton, and why not when they have Brees and weapons like Sproles,Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Jimmy Graham? But they also need balance with a physical presence on offense and a strong running game. While their rushing attack didn't exactly sputter in 2012, it just wasn't used nearly enough or as efficiently as it should have been. With a defense that should be improved, and thus more late leads for the Saints, I fully expect Payton to get the running game back to where it has been for the majority of his tenure as New Orleans' head coach. That is a major reason why I will be picking the Saints to win the NFC South this season.