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Defending champion Saints finding their stride at crucial time


For those of you who have anointed the Falcons, Eagles or Giants as the team to beat in the NFC, you might want to consult with the New Orleans Saints before giving away the crown.

The defending Super Bowl champions have quietly found their stride behind a rejuvenated offense, and opponents should be concerned.

The Saints have reeled off six consecutive wins, and their explosive offense has been the catalyst. New Orleans has scored at least 30 points in five of those contests en route to becoming one of four teams with at least 10 wins at this point.

When thinking about the Saints' offense, it's natural to tab Drew Brees as the straw that stirs the drink. Brees is a deadly accurate thrower with outstanding arm strength, anticipation and touch. He hits his open receivers with aplomb, and is patient enough to take the check-down when defenders fly out of their zones to stop the deep ball. Brees has connected on 68 percent of his passes for 3,855 yards with 28 touchdowns. Although he inexplicably leads the league with 18 interceptions, his 93.6 passer rating ranks ninth in the league.

In taking a closer look at Brees' high interception totals, it is apparent that the loss of key personnel led to some of his questionable decisions. He has forced the ball into tight windows in an attempt to produce big plays, but the risky throws repeatedly landed in the hands of swarming defenders. Part of Brees' problems can be attributed to feeling the need to take on a bigger burden with several of his pivotal playmakers on the sideline. However, the return of Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas and Jeremy Shockey should alleviate that pressure.

Last season, the Saints relied on the Bush-Thomas duo to key a rushing attack that averaged 131.6 yards per game, which was the fifth-best total in the league. The threat of a legitimate running game forced defenses to play honest on early downs, and reduced some of the gimmick coverage schemes that teams would use to neutralize Brees. However, the concurrent absences of Thomas (nine games) and Bush (eight games) reduced the Saints' running game to an afterthought early in the season. The Saints rank just 22nd in rushing (101.1 yards per game), mostly because they've used a revolving door of runners.

Though Chris Ivory provided a pair of 100-yard games to single-handedly prop up the running game, the rookie couldn't provide a spark on a consistent basis as the workhorse and is better suited for a role as a complementary runner. Against the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, he flashed explosive running skills as an off-tackle runner. Ivory has good initial quickness in the hole, and shows an impressive burst while climbing to the second level. Although he hasn't shown the ability to handle a heavy workload, his ability to contribute as a situational runner will only enhance a backfield that features a pair of big-play threats in Thomas and Bush.

Thomas, who rushed for 793 yards a season ago, gives the Saints a hard-nosed, physical runner capable of pounding the ball relentlessly in the middle of the defense. His ability to grind out the tough yards on downhill runs allows the Saints to pound the ball at tired defenses during the late stages of a game. Although his workload was reduced in his first game back, Thomas tallied 68 yards on 16 touches, including 12 rushing attempts, and showed that he was fully recovered from the balky knee that limited his action early in the season.

With Ivory and Thomas slated to handle the bulk of the running duties for the Saints, Bush is poised to reprise his role as the team's designated wild card. He possesses rare talent as a receiver/runner, and Saints coach Sean Payton maximizes his skills by deploying him at various positions in the team's spread offense. Bush's ability to get open against linebackers and defensive backs in space requires defensive coordinators to direct double coverage in his direction, and Payton exploits those tactics by taking advantage of the one-on-one matchups on the outside. Marques Colston, in particular, benefits from the host of attention that Bush commands. In breaking down the Saints' opening score on Sunday, it was Payton's clever deployment of Bush that led to an easy 5-yard touchdown reception for Colston.

On that play, Payton starts with Bush flanked wide on the right. Prior to the snap, he motions Bush into the backfield beside Brees, who takes the shotgun snap and fakes an inside handoff. The Rams' linebackers and strong safety react aggressively to the fake by stepping up to meet Bush in the hole. Colston runs a stutter post before running to the back of the end zone. The combination of the play-fake and stutter route allows Colston to slip past Oshiomogho Atogwe for the Saints' opening score. While Bush has been derided for his inconsistent production as a runner, he is still a big-play threat defenses fear, and that anxiety repeatedly leads to scoring opportunities for others.

With a solid running game back in place, the Saints' passing game can return to the high-percentage attack that befuddles defensive coordinators across the league. While Bush and Thomas key the approach with their dynamic running skills, the presence of Jeremy Shockey in the middle of the field is vital to exploiting some of the umbrella coverage teams are using to limit the deep balls on the outside. Shockey, the team's third-leading receiver with 37 grabs, is a big, athletic target with the speed to separate from linebackers. Although he no longer possesses the exceptional athleticism to stretch the field on a consistent basis, he is a crafty playmaker capable of punishing defenses in the intermediate areas of the field. He has been a Brees safety net since his arrival, and his return to the lineup adds another dimension to the Saints' aerial attack.

The Saints haven't worked out all of the kinks on offense, but the return of Thomas, Bush and other key offensive personnel has sparked the league's most dynamic offense on an impressive run that should put them back in the conversation as one of the NFC favorites.

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