For the past seven seasons, the New Orleans Saints have fielded an offense that have put up ridiculous stats in the passing game. Before the 2008 season, one man threw for over 5,000 yards just one time. Dan Marino's single season passing record stood for 24 years and became a mark that seemed close to untouchable. In the past two seasons, Drew Brees has thrown for over 5,084 yards, which is Marino's old record. Obviously, the boys in Black and Gold are beyond dangerous in the passing game.
While Saints fans can thank the passing game for a lot of the team's recent success, the running game has played a huge part in the Saints' most successful seasons under Coach Payton. It is no secret that he wants to get back to that winning formula and he still has the weapons to make that happen. Allow me to break down the success of the running game in the Sean Payton era:
|YEAR||TOTAL RUSHING YDS (RANK)||YDS PER CARRY (RANK)|
|2006||1,761 YARDS (19TH)||3.7 YPC (26TH)|
|2007||1,466 YARDS (28TH)||3.7 YPC (28TH)|
|2008||1,594 YARDS (28TH)||4.0 YPC (23RD)|
|2009||2,106 YARDS (6TH)||4.5 YPC (7TH)|
|2010||1,519 YARDS (28TH)||4.0 YPC (19TH)|
|2011||2,127 YARDS (6TH)||4.9 YPC (4TH)|
|2012||1,577 YARDS (25TH)||4.3 YPC (13TH)|
This chart says a lot about how important it is for the Saints to get the running game back on track in 2013. It is hard to argue that 2009 and 2011 were the two most successful seasons during the Payton era. The running game was a huge part of those two 13-3 seasons. Then, look at the 3rd highest rushing total in total yardage. That would be 2006, the year of the NFC Championship loss to the Chicago Bears as a 2 seed.
Another cool thing to look at is the improvement in yards per carry over the years. The 2010 season had to endure a very beat up running back crew. Not one running back started more than 6 games that season and the leading rusher (Ivory) had 137 carries. The 2012 season was missing Coach Payton, which led to a career high in passing attempts by Drew Brees. But when the main pieces are in place, the Saints have proven that their "running back by committee" approach can do some amazing things for this offense. Payton's last coached season, 2011, proves all that I need to see. While Brees threw for a record crushing 5,476 yards, four Saints running backs did the majority of the work in combining for a very solid 2,127 yards (6th in NFL) while averaging almost five yards per carry. Considering Darren Sproles was the leading rusher with only 603 rushing yards, the running back by committee worked beautifully in 2011.
Of the four running backs in the 2011 committee, three are still expecting to be a huge part of the Saints' offense. If the three stars of the running back rotation can stay healthy, the return of Sean Payton may give this running attack the boost needed to relive the offensive magic that was 2009 and 2011.
THE THREE HEADED MONSTER:
Coming off of what was his lowest rushing attempt total since 2007 (with the Chargers as a 3rd string RB), Sproles still managed to average 5.1 yards per carry. It was hard for me to understand how his carries would be cut in almost half after the explosiveness that he showed in 2011 (averaged an awesome 6.9 yards per carry in 2011). I understand that Sproles is not typically a 10-15 carry per game back, but for Sproles to have ZERO carries in four games last season seems to be a little silly to me. Obviously, Sproles has been a tremendous weapon in the passing game, recording 161 catches in the past two seasons. (To put this into perspective, Sproles has more catches in the past two seasons than Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Smith). He is what Eric Metcalf hoped to be. The X Factor. A dynamic playmaker that has the chance to take it to the house on any play. While Sproles has hit the dreaded age of 30 as a running back, the 5'6" speedster has shown no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
What to watch: The return of Coach Payton should mean more rushing attempts for Sproles. Payton is one of the most innovative play callers in the NFL and should find more ways to get the explosive Sproles some rushing attempts that will translate into some big plays. With additional competition in camp for the kick/punt return position, I wonder if Payton will use Sproles less in the return game this season. I think that is something to keep an eye on, considering his kick and punt return stats were down in 2012 and the fact that he means so much to the offense. Considering the unproven depth at wide receiver, I also expect to see a little more of Sproles out wide, creating mismatches against opposing offenses.
Since day one, I have been a huge supporter of Sean Payton and the coaching staff. However, I will never understand why Pierre Thomas still does not receive more playing time. For his career, Thomas has caught almost 83% of the passes that have come his way. In six of seven seasons, PT has also rushed for 4.5 yards per carry or better. In 2009, when given at least 10 attempts per game, Thomas averaged a career best in yards per carry (5.4). By the end of this season, Thomas will be 29 years old. His time to shine is now!
What to watch: In my opinion, no one benefits from the loss of Chris Ivory more than Pierre Thomas. While Sproles is busy being the X Factor, Thomas should only have to compete with Mark Ingram for most of the Saints' carries. Thomas could win that position battle if he continues to impress with his excellence at catching the screen pass and his ability to run hard between the tackles. He has proven to be the most versatile of the Saints' running backs and deserves more playing time in 2013.
The 2011 first round pick has already become someone that some Saints fans are ready to give up on. His unimpressive 3.9 yards per carry in each of his first two seasons is not necessarily winning the fans over. With only 17 catches in 26 games, Ingram has yet to prove that he has the all around ability at running back that Thomas and Sproles has. The Saints have placed a bigger focus in developing Ingram as a receiver out of the backfield, but we need to see more consistency in his opportunities as a ball carrier. After a terrible first half of the 2012 season, Ingram showed signs of his potential in the second half of the season. From week 9-17, Ingram rushed for 468 yards on 109 attempts averaging 4.3 yards per carry. From week 1-8 in 2012, Ingram was horrible, rushing for 134 yards on 47 carries (2.85 yards per attempt). In his third season, Ingram must continue improving, like he started to do as the 2012 season came to a close.
What to watch: The dry play calling in 2012 did Mark Ingram no favors. The coaching staff must get more creative with Ingram in the game to utilize his talent as a play maker. I am curious to see if working with Ingram in the passing game pays off for his overall success as a player. The Saints' offense was one of the most predictable in football in 2012, so adding the genius that is Sean Payton to the mix could accelerate the growth of Ingram. If he doesn't shine for the Saints in 2013, the Saints may be looking forward to taking a step back in the near future, as Sproles, Ingram, Thomas, and Travaris Cadet are all free agents in 2015. Experiencing growth in Ingram could bode well for the future of the Saints, as Thomas and Sproles are not getting any younger.
THE WILD CARDS:
I have seen and read mixed reviews on Cadet. Some see him as potentially the "next Darren Sproles". Others consider him nothing more than an average special teams player. I lean towards the latter, as Cadet has not yet proven to me that he belongs with the three headed monster. It is only his second year, so with Ivory gone, Cadet may have a few opportunities to prove what he can do with ball in hand for the Saints offense. It does seem more likely that his best chance to make the roster is to improve in the return game, where he tied for 7th in the NFL in yards per kick return.
What to watch: Cadet needs to make a lot of noise as a kick returner this preseason. While he will get plenty of opportunities to show how much he has improved as a running back/receiver out of the back field, the best chance for Cadet to stand out above his only competitor is to be an animal on special teams. Besides, his potential shown in preseason last year is what earned him a roster spot. He needs to build on that.
My first article as a CSC contributor focused on this kid, and how I believe that he could possibly be the next unknown to challenge for a roster spot. (Click here to read it). There are a few things in Robinson that remind me a lot of Chris Ivory. I wouldn't be surprised if he comes out of nowhere and has that type of preseason.
What to watch for: If Khiry Robinson has an Ivory like preseason, that could be hard for the coaching staff to ignore. While Cadet's skill as a pass catcher out of the backfield is valued, his running game needs work. Robinson seems to have a slight edge as a runner between the tackles, but has a way to go before he proves to be as reliable as Cadet catching the pass. The Cadet vs. Robinson battle may turn out to be closer than we think.
While the camp battle at running back lacks drama, I am anxious to see how the coaching staff will use the three headed monster. Will the Saints continue to look at Ingram as the primary back, or will Thomas get another shot at carrying more of the workload? Will Sproles see more carries now that Payton is back and Ivory is gone? Does a dude named Austin Johnson have any shot at beating out Jed Collins for the fullback roster spot? I'm ready for some football and for the Saints to answer some of these questions.
The next Countdown to Camp Position Preview will focus on the offensive linemen. How much will the loss of Jermon Bushrod affect the Saints' offense?