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John DeShazier: Saints offensive attack more balanced than ever

Posted Nov 17, 2017

Saints running the ball 47.9 percent of the time

In their most optimistic projections, perhaps, even the New Orleans Saints weren’t expecting this.

That’s not to say New Orleans, 7-2 entering Sunday’s game against Washington (4-5) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, didn’t enter the season with hopes of a more balanced offense; that’s the stated goal every year and it’s the optimal way to operate as an offense.

But there have been twists, turns, detours and exits along the journey that often have prevented an arrival at the destination.

In 2016, minus sacks, New Orleans had 404 rushing attempts and 674 passing attempts. In ’15, 397 and 667, respectively. Back in ’14, the ledger was 406 and 659 and the season before, ’13, the numbers were 391 and 651.

In ’12, the totals were 370 and 671; in ’10, 380 and 661; and in ’08 and ’07, 398 and 392 runs, respectively, with 635 and 652 pass attempts.

Each one of those seasons, in a league that has grown more reliant on the pass perhaps due to rules that favor the passing game and increased scoring, the Saints attempted a pass on 61.5 percent of their offensive plays. And if sacks are factored in – plays in which the team attempted to pass but couldn’t – the percentage creeps up, though by very small increments.

Not so in 2017. The Saints are on pace to be more balanced than they ever have been in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era, during which the head coach and quarterback have devised and directed an offense that has been franchise-altering and record-setting.

With 276 rushes and 300 pass attempts, the Saints are throwing 52.1 percent of the time. During their seven-game winning streak, there even has been more of a lean to the ground; 238 runs and 218 passes, with the run game accounting for 52.2 percent of the offensive plays.

“We’ve been trying to have a more balanced approach,” left tackle Terron Armstead said. “We’ve got two very dynamic backs (in Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara) that we love to get the ball in their hands as much as possible. I feel like it’s been effective for us, for our offense. We’re kind of hard to gameplan for, so we want to keep that going.

“It’s a great feeling (for an offensive lineman) to go forward. Pass blocking is a stressful part of the game, trying not to let Drew get touched. So when you get a chance to go forward and kind of impose your will, you look forward to those plays.

“I feel like we’re built for it, for the long run. We’ve got a young O-line, a young team all around. So I feel like we’re built to keep doing it and it’s going to be a very important part of our game going forward when we get late in the season.”

The Saints have been employing a formula that is workable this season, and has worked several times in the past.

This year, they already have four games (all wins) in which rushing attempts outnumbered pass attempts, including the last three. In two other victories, they only ran two fewer times than they threw.

That kind of balance previously happened in 2009 (52.3 percent passes), ’11 (60.1 percent passes) and ’06 (54 percent). Perhaps not coincidentally, New Orleans started 13-0, 5-2 and 6-2 in those seasons, respectively.

Balance makes for a better, less predictable offense.

“This is not anything new to football,” Coach Sean Payton said Friday. “If you’re able to run the ball somewhat efficiently, it becomes easier for any play-caller because then you have play-action. If you’re one-dimensional it’s more challenging. That won’t change any time soon.

“That’s why when each week you talk defensive football, we have to stop the run game. We have to be able to do that. That’s that back and forth battle. Fortunately, we’re running the ball more efficiently now. Last week, and I said this, was a little bit of an exception (48 carries for 298 yards against Buffalo) and it doesn’t happen often. Preparing for the next game and what you feel you have to do in that next game might be entirely different. Having choices rather than not having them, obviously, helps.”

The choices begin with a productive running game, which the Saints have had for seven consecutive games.

“I think we’ve been having just a lot of emphasis on running the ball,” said Ingram, who leads the team with 672 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on 144 carries. “That’s something we wanted to improve on coming into the year. It just happens to be that we’re running the ball well.

“We’re running effectively, we’re scheming it up good, the coaches are scheming it up well, putting us in good positions to have success running the ball. And the big boys up front are just doing a tremendous job, the tight ends, the fullback, everyone – receivers blocking down field. It takes a collective effort to be able to run the ball. We have a lot of hands in it.”

It’s a pleasant departure from what has become the expected source of overwhelming production by the Saints’ offense.

“Initially, from what I knew, I didn’t really expect that,” rookie right tackle Ryan Ramczyk said. “But you’ve got to love it. We had a lot of fun out there in Buffalo, it was awesome to get the run game going like that.

“We’re just going out there and if we can run the ball that efficiently, why would we stop? So, we’ll continue doing that if we can.”