METAIRIE, La. -- Although the New Orleans Saints haven't been known as a running team in the Sean Payton era, the coach and his players are well aware that the franchise's past two playoff seasons came when they ran the ball well.
Through five games this season, the defending Super Bowl champions rank 31st -- or second to last -- in the NFL in rushing yards per game at 75.6, a figure that Payton wants to see rise in a hurry.
"When we've been clicking, we've had balance and we just haven't been throwing the ball," Payton said after Wednesday's practice. "We do a lot of play-action, and that's effective when you're running the ball efficiently. That's something that we'll continue to work on."
Thomas, who was the Saints' top rusher last season (793 yards), has missed the past two games and didn't practice Wednesday, leaving his status unclear for Sunday's game at Tampa Bay. Bush, who rushed for 390 yards last season, has missed the last three games and expects to sit out at least one more.
In 2009, Thomas, Bush and Mike Bell, who rushed for 654 yards, led a ground attack that ranked sixth in the NFL with 131.6 yards per game. In 2006, the Saints' only other playoff season under Payton, they averaged 110 rushing yards and ranked 19th.
This season, the Saints were counting on Lynell Hamilton to take over for Bell as their pounding, short-yardage, ball-control running back, but Hamilton went out for the season with a torn right knee ligament in training camp.
Soon after, running back P.J. Hill went out for the season with a torn triceps.
But when addressing the Saints' trouble running the ball, Payton said he doesn't "want to point to injuries."
The running game is "an area that we feel like we're going to improve on," Payton said. "We understand the importance of that aspect to what we do."
This week, the Saints brought in Julius Jones, who was with the Dallas Cowboys when Payton was an offensive assistant for that team under Bill Parcells. Jones said Payton has maintained some of the same terminology he used in Dallas, making his adjustment smoother.
"It's really good to see a familiar face," Jones said. "Some of the offense is similar ... so the transition for me is not as hard as it would be for any other guy.
"I want to come in here, make some sort of impact and help this team out," Jones said. "I have a lot of ball left. I haven't been beat up. I've got fresh legs. I just came off of my bye, so I'm ready to go."
The Saints are averaging 3.3 yards per carry, which ranks 30th. They are 19th in rushing attempts, averaging 23.2 per game. The top four rushing teams in the NFL -- the New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons, Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars -- all are running the ball more than 32 times per game.
The Saints didn't appear to have serious problems running the ball in their season opener. Although they attempted just three runs in the first half of their 14-9 victory over the Minnesota Vikings, Thomas carried 17 times for 70 yards in the second half, helping the Saints protect their lead.
However, New Orleans' ground game gained just 50 yards at San Francisco, then 43 yards the following week in an overtime loss to Atlanta. Thomas injured his ankle late in the Falcons game.
"We were one of the top rushing teams in football last year, and I feel like any time you can be balanced ... that run game sets up the play action, the down-the-field throws, the big-play opportunities," Brees said. "All those things are critical to being a very explosive offense, and we feel like we are getting back on track with the run game."
Notes: Ivory said he doesn't expect a pending assault charge in the state of Washington to affect his season with the Saints. "I didn't commit that," Ivory said about allegations that he hit a man over the head with a bottle in July 2009. "That's something that happened almost two years ago. The Saints were aware of it. I have no further comments." If convicted on the second-degree assault charge, Ivory could be sentenced to between three and nine months in jail. Whitman County prosecutor Denis Tracy said he'd be willing to schedule court dates in the case after the season as long as the delay doesn't hurt the case. ... DB Randall Gay missed practice with headaches that Payton said might be related to a concussion that occurred in Week 2. Safety Roman Harper, who played Sunday after coming back from a hamstring injury, also sat out practice. DE Will Smith, who missed the Cardinals game with a groin injury, was limited.
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press