New Orleans running back Pierre Thomas. (Associated Press)
New Orleans running back Darren Sproles. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Friday, August 02, 2013 4:19 PM
METAIRIE (AP) — The New Orleans Saints are about to get a better sense of whether all their talk about improving their running game is amounting to much on the field.
After eight days of training camp in which contact was limited, the Saints line up for a scrimmage on Saturday in which linemen such as All-Pro guard Jahri Evans will try to blow open holes at full force for running backs Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles.
"We got to see how it looks" on Saturday, Evans said of the running game following Friday's practice. "It's going to be a point of emphasis. Everybody's making it seem that way and our position in the run game last year wasn't pleasing to us at all."
New Orleans ranked 25th in the NFL in yards rushing per game last season with 98.5. Coaches and players alike see no coincidence in that ranking and the fact that the Saints went 7-9, tying their worst record since Sean Payton took over as head coach in 2006.
"The ground game hurt us last year a lot," Thomas said. "We weren't balanced. ... This is something we really need to focus on."
As prolific as Drew Brees and New Orleans' record-setting passing offense have been during the Payton era, the Saints have won more when they've been able to run consistently.
In three of the Saints' last four playoff seasons, they ran the ball more than 40 percent of the time, with 2010 (38.1 percent) being the lone exception, but also the worst of the four playoff seasons. On their way to their lone Super Bowl title in 2009, the Saints ran the ball on 47.3 percent of their plays, the best balance they've had under Payton.
In each of their three non-playoff seasons since 2006, their percentage of running plays was below 40. Last season was their least balanced, with 37.2 percent runs.
"Obviously with a guy like Drew Brees, it's not a bad thing to go to the air," Evans said. "But I think we did pass a lot more last year than we have in the past and we know that."
Payton, of course, was not on the sideline last season, banned by the league for failing to stop former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' cash-for-hits bounty program.
Since Payton has returned, he's made it clear that he wants to see more of the ground game, but stressed that it's more complicated than simply calling more running plays. He noted that the Saints will run more when they're either protecting leads or have more favorable down-and-distance situations. He also noted that getting and protecting leads, as well as having good field position, often hinges on how a team performs on defense — in which New Orleans ranked last in 2012 — and on special teams.
"You want to have balance and yet it's hard to do if you're behind. You want to control the clock and time of possession and yet you're giving up big plays and not playing well on defense," Payton said. "All those things lead to more challenging snaps, more third downs and less opportunities to run.
"That ability to control the game in the second half involves a run game," Payton continued. "It's just harder to do when you're behind."
One thing Payton has not done is look to overhaul the offensive line or running back corps. He's expressed confidence that the Saints have the personnel to get the job done in the ground game if they have a better chance to get into the rhythm of a game.
"They are a great stable backs. They can do everything. All of them can block. All of them can run — inside, outside. They can all catch the ball out of the backfield. They are all smart, tough, disciplined, reliable," Brees said. "Anytime you can get the run game going, especially early in the game, it opens up so much in the pass game. We want to be very complimentary. So, where the run game is setting up the pass, the pass is setting up the run."
NOTES: RB Mark Ingram returned to practice on Friday after Payton said that Ingram was given Thursday off to rest. ... Practice was briefly interrupted when a 59-year-old man slipped through a barricade surrounding the practice fields and started toward players before being quickly wrestled to the ground and handcuffed by Jefferson Parish Sheriff's deputies. Sherriff's spokesman John Fortunato said David Mobley of Houma, La., was booked into Parish jail on one count each of remaining after forbidden, resisting arrest and battery on a police officer. ... Payton said reserve QB Seneca Wallace likely won't play in Saturday's scrimmage because of a sore groin that has sidelined him three practices.