The New Orleans Saints were idle along with the rest of the league Monday night as their next opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, dismantled the Chicago Bears. If the 49ers seemed like a noteworthy opponent before the game then the beating they doled out on Monday Night Football made them top contenders for the NFC crown.
The Saints and their fans have been waiting for this game against the 49ers since the last second ticked off the clock in their NFC Divisional loss last year. The Saints could only stand by on the sideline, head in hands, as the 49ers celebrated. The Saints only had themselves to blame as they turned the ball over five times.
In all reality the Saints had no business being in the game with their five turnovers but this is a Drew Brees led offense we're talking about. The biggest difference for the Saints in the loss was their inability to establish a running game (37 total yards). In the previous four games, including the playoff win against the Lions, the Saints were averaging 175 yards per game.
This year the Saints haven't exactly blazed past their opponents with a rushing average of 94.6 yards per game, but the most important things they are beginning to do. In their early losses, defensive backs and safeties have had the freedom to play a little more loosely than the Saints would like and cheat up on diagnosed running plays. But the combined hard-nosed running by Chris Ivory and Mark Ingram have made opponents think twice about cheating up on the line.
In the past three games (Eagles, Falcons, Raiders) Ingram and Ivory have combined for 335 yards and five touchdowns. While Pierre Thomas is leading the team in rushing yards (341 yards), Ingram and Ivory are leaving an indelible impressions that the Saints running game is back. Not only is it back but, if you have watched Ivory's and Ingram's running lately you would notice it's bruising as well.
If the Saints hope to have a chance against the 49ers they have to establish a running game. They're hoping their dynamic first string running back Darren Sproles will be suiting up for the game, although they can't place all their bets on him. Sproles has sat out the past three games with an injured hand.
The void he has left has been more than adequately filled by Ingram and Ivory. In the three games Sproles has been sidelined the Saints have rushed for over 100 yards per game. They took the rushing game to the Eagles for 140 yards, ran for 148 yards against Atlanta and in their most recent game blew past the Raiders for 153 rushing yards.
All of a sudden the five sub-100 rushing yard games the Saints had before these last three games seem like a memory. Whether or not Sproles is ready isn't the determining factor for rushing attack success. Like everything the Saints do, the running game will be have to be a team effort for them to win and nothing less.