There is a part of me that really hates to call "the jitterbug" a liability. I love the upside that Darren presents. In the right situation he is a match-up nightmare for the opposing defense. However, in the wrong situation, he is a match-up nightmare ... for the Saints offense. Too many times in the 4th quarter of Sunday’s game I saw Sproles in the backfield trying to block 49er pass rushers that just swatted him aside on their way to get a Brees sack snack. Sproles didn’t even have a carry in that game. Meanwhile, he was the leading receiver with 65 yards on 7 receptions. There is no denying what Sproles can do when he has the space to work his magic; on punt/kick returns and in the passing game he has unbelievable speed and cutting ability. The Saints know how to use him, the problem is that every defense also knows how the Saints use him. Sproles isn’t a threat from a pure rushing standpoint; he isn’t the best blocking back the Saints have. I’m not trying to question the toughness of Darren Sproles; pound-for-pound, I think he gives Pacquiáo a run for his money. However, this season it seems to me that his particular skill set is limiting the run game, and if any half-back on the Saints roster needs to line up in the backfield less, it might be #43.
It’s complicated, though. In his career, Darren Sproles has 1,874 rushing yards to 2,498 receiving yards; additionally he has over 9,000 return yards (Kick + Punt) in his 102 NFL game career. So far this year for the Saints, Sproles is their 4th leading rusher (4th in carries) and the 4th leading receiver (3rd in receptions). Again, the Saints know how to use Sproles and they know it isn’t in the running game. He’s a threat when he catches the ball in space on screens and check-downs. It seems like the Saints are forcing those scenarios; they are wasting plays trying to get the ball to #43. In the first 7 games of the season (with Sproles) the Saints averaged 72.6 yards/game on 19.8 carries/game, and that includes the 163 yard performance against Carolina in Week 2 (the Saints best rushing game of the season). In the 3 Sproles-less games they averaged 146.3 yards on 27.3 carries. This past Sunday, with #43 back in the game, they only managed 59 yards on 21 carries.
Maybe it’s the offensive line? Maybe it’s the play calling? Maybe it’s a product of playing from behind versus protecting a lead? Opposing defense? Whatever the reason, I definitely don’t think that it’s Darren’s fault that the Saints run game (in my view) doesn’t work as well when he’s on the field. Lord knows he gives 150% whenever he’s out there; he’s got the talent, drive and records to be considered one of the great players in Saints or even NFL history. And for this reason it seems like a crime to leave him out of plays when we feel like he can be the most explosive player on the field. But Carmichael and Brees are obviously not maximizing their asset. The Saints need blocking and a legitimate rushing attack right now; this shores up the receiving game which is the foundation of this team. Line him up as a receiver, put him back to return kicks, but please, for now, use less Darren Sproles in the backfield rotation.