I'm sure fans of the perennial Pro Bowler will take umbrage with that assessment, based on Brees' remarkable production, but after watching the Saints get back on track over the past two weeks behind a diverse running game, I'm convinced that sticking the ball in the bellies of Chris Ivory, Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas is the key to the offense's success.
The Saints' deep backfield creates headaches for defensive coordinators.
The NFL has trended away from feature backs in favor of committee backfields in recent years, and the Saints are certainly a part of the movement. Their backfield features four talented runners: Darren Sproles, Chris Ivory, Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas. The quartet presents significant challenges for opposing defenses with its combination of speed, quickness and power. Most importantly, the Saints' clever utilization of each back within a variety of personnel packages and formations makes it difficult for opponents to get an accurate bead on what's coming next when the team breaks the huddle.
With Sproles currently sidelined with a hand injury, let's quickly examine how New Orleans employs its three healthy backs:
Ivory is the Saints' most explosive runner, outside of Sproles. At 6-foot, 222 pounds, Ivory has the size to run effectively between the tackles, yet also exhibits the speed and burst to get to the corner on perimeter runs. The Saints capitalize on his skills by routinely running him to the edges on an assortment of off-tackle plays. Not only does this put Ivory in position to bounce to the outside when the corner is sealed, it provides him with plenty of cutback lanes when defenders flow quickly to the outside. With the Saints' front line adept at locking on and finishing blocks at the second level, Ivory can break off big gainers, giving the offense an explosive element in the running game.
The play is designed to hit inside, but Ivory bounces it to the edge when he sees open field available:
After a lengthy recovery from offseason knee surgery, Ingram is finally back to form, and has provided a spark to the Saints' power-running game. The second-year pro has gained 111 yards on 23 attempts over the past two games, serving as the designated runner in the team's jumbo package (one running back, one tight end, two wide receivers and six offensive linemen). The Saints put Ingram on the field with a host of big bodies along the front line to give him an opportunity to soften up the defense with several hard-hitting runs between the tackles. The combination of run-heavy personnel and Ingram's no-nonsense style eventually wears down the defense, leading to big gains late in games. In addition, Ingram's presence on the field forces opponents to pay close attention the run, which sets up explosive plays on movement-based play-action passes.
In the screengrab below, taken from the Saints' Week 9 win over the Philadelphia Eagles, Ingram is aligned as the single back in the Saints' ace formation. The Saints are running the inside zone play to the left:
Ingram initially takes the ball to his left, but then he sees left defensive end Jason Babin slipping inside, leaving room to bounce the ball around the edge:
After getting outside and running through a handful of tackles, Ingram finished with a 23-yard gain.
Thomas is arguably the most versatile running back on the Saints' roster. He has the ability to run inside with strength and power or turn the corner by utilizing his sneaky speed and quickness. In addition, Thomas is a natural pass catcher with the hands and receiving skills to create problems in space. To take advantage of Thomas' diverse skills, the Saints will frequently use him as part of their "11" personnel package (one running back, one tight end and three receivers), giving them a dual-threat weapon in the backfield. In the running game, Thomas receives the bulk of his carries on draws or misdirection plays designed to capitalize on his explosive stop-start quickness. Click on the video to your right to see Thomas gaining 19 yards on a draw play against the Eagles.
If the Saints rush for 120 yards, put a "W" in the win column.
For all of the fascination with New Orleans' passing game, the ground attack typically determines the team's success on Sundays. Since Sean Payton took over as head coach in 2006, the Saints are 33-2 when they rush for at least 120 yards. Although that's not a high-water mark when compared to the top rushing offenses in the NFL (the San Francisco 49ers currently lead the league with an average of 170.2 rushing yards per game), it is indicative of a strategy that involves routinely handing the ball off to runners in the backfield. This creates offensive balance and allows the Saints to control the tempo of the game.
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I looked back at the statistics from the Saints' Super Bowl run in 2009. It's important to note that New Orleans ranked sixth in rushing offense (131.6 yards per game) that season and attempted an average of 29.2 carries per contest. With almost 30 carries to bang away at the defense, the Saints were able to keep opponents from loading up to stop the pass while also wearing them down with hard-hitting runs between the tackles. Most games are decided in the final quarter; making the defense bang against a physical offensive line and a host of hard-nosed runners typically produces a fatigued unit -- and positive results for the offense.
As I studied the Saints' All-22 footage from earlier this season, I didn't see the same commitment to the run; the lack of overall carries prevented New Orleans' runners from finding a groove. However, the Saints tallied 25 and 29 rushing attempts, respectively, in their last two games, leading to better production and a more balanced offensive approach. This not only makes the entire offense more difficult to defend, but it allows the Saints to dictate to their opponents instead of reacting to defensive tactics.
New Orleans' commitment to the run creates big gains off play-action.
It's no secret that a quarterback's best friend is a strong running game. The threat of the run forces opponents to use eight-man fronts with single coverage on the outside, creating big-play opportunities on the perimeter. In addition, the presence of a strong running game allows quarterbacks to find open receivers on crossing routes behind linebackers after strong play fakes in the backfield. When I looked at Brees' numbers from the first seven games, I was shocked that he was completing just 59.6 percent of his passes and averaging just 7.3 yards per attempt. While those numbers would be satisfactory for most quarterbacks in the NFL, Brees has routinely ranked among the NFL's leaders in both categories since his arrival in New Orleans.
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A large part of his struggles could be attributed to the lack of a running game and the diminished effectiveness of New Orleans' play-action pass package. With the Saints failing to establish the run early on, opponents would often drop seven and eight defenders into coverage to clog Brees' passing lanes. This would force him to throw more checkdowns to running backs and tight ends or make risky throws into traffic. While Brees definitely possesses the arm strength to fit throws into tight windows, the degree of difficulty brought his success rate down and led to more turnovers. However, the recent change in offensive philosophy has helped Brees rediscover his rhythm, and his numbers are up as a result. Brees has completed 42 of his 59 passes (71 percent) over the past two weeks, with five touchdowns and just one interception. Most importantly, the Saints have reeled off two straight wins behind an offense that is downright scary to defend.
In the following screengrab, taken from the Falcons game, the Saints are aligned in a dubs formation (two receivers on each side), with Lance Moore positioned in the slot. Brees will execute a play-fake to Thomas before setting up in the pocket following a half roll. Moore runs a crossing route behind the linebackers before settling into an open area in the coverage:
The play-fake lures Atlanta's linebackers to the line of scrimmage, allowing Moore to slip past them on his crossing route:
Brees eventually found Moore running free through the zone and delivered an accurate strike -- which Moore corralled one-handed -- for a 29-yard gain.
After the snap, Brees will fake a toss sweep to Thomas to his left before rolling out to the right and looking for Colston on a crossing route at the back of the end zone. The fake draws the Eagles' defenders to the line of scrimmage:
This creates a window for Brees to hit Colston for a 1-yard score: