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John DeShazier: Offseason work on running game paying off for Saints

Saints ran for 139 yards, three TDs against Falcons

The question of whether there would be carryover, sustained improvement, continued production, a flash from season's past, new production, a new era or all of the aforementioned regarding the New Orleans Saints running game in 2014 seems to have been answered – at least temporarily – in Week 1.

Against Atlanta, New Orleans ran for 139 yards and three touchdowns on 28 carries.

In 18 games last season (including playoffs), the Saints only hit the 139-yard rushing mark twice (242 in the ninth game of the season, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome against Dallas; and 185 in their 17th game, against Philadelphia in their NFC wild-card contest, when they posted the first road playoff win in franchise history).

Only once, against Dallas, did the Saints post three rushing touchdowns.

"We improved as the season went on (last year) and those last handful of games, and into the postseason against Philadelphia, we felt like we were running the ball pretty effectively, even in Seattle with the loss (in the Divisional Playoff game)," Coach Sean Payton said. "It is something that we feel like is important, especially for our offense."

It's something that was emphasized this offseason, and the work appears to be paying off.

Granted, 15 games remain and New Orleans will have to re-prove itself every week in the running game. But the Saints, as much as any team, understand the positive effect of a balanced offense.

In the previous seven seasons under Payton, the Saints have averaged more than 100 rushing yards per game three times – 110.1 in 2006, 131.6 in 2009 and 132.9 in 2011.

In '06, the Saints finished the regular season 10-6 and advanced to the NFC championship game. In '09, they went 13-3 and won the Super Bowl. In '11, they went 13-3 and beat Detroit in the wild-card game before losing in the divisional playoff.

Last year, when the Saints ran for 92.1 yards per game, they were 3-3 when they ran for at least 100 yards. All three losses were on the road, but each was a last-second decision – in the regular season to New England and Carolina, and the divisional playoff at Seattle, 23-15.

They weren't victorious in the season opener against Atlanta, a 37-34, overtime defeat. But the offensive balance (333 passing yards, 70 total plays, 40 percent of them rushing attempts) gave Atlanta's defense problems. And it likely will do the same against future opponents.

The increased production, which became a consistent part of the offense toward the end of last season (517 yards on 122 carries in the last four games), and the quick start this season is a result of familiarity and communication.

"Just knowing where we want to be, what the backs are looking at, the run fits – and the backs have been running pretty good," right guard Jahri Evans said. "They're trusting our blocks and our fits and they've just been hitting holes.

"Last year, when you get new coaches in those rooms (with the running backs and offensive line), they want some things a little bit different. I think as the season went on, we got more and more reps and you know what guys are doing, what they're looking at. But mainly, it's getting off the ball, low pads and driving guys off the line."

Veteran running back Pierre Thomas said the Saints will remain focused on running game production.

"This year, we're emphasizing running the ball a lot more so we can be a balanced team, like we used to be in the past," Thomas said. "You see a lot of the guys really taking focus and notice of how important the run game is and what they can do to establish it.

"I know for us, as running backs, our corps wants to establish what we can do to get ourselves better, to get the run game going. And that's meeting with the O-line, having conversations on our own – without the coaches – talking to these guys and how they fit up on defenders on certain run plays.

"This year we feel a lot comfortable with the run game because we practiced so much before the season started and we felt like we got a good groove, a good tempo, between us and the offensive linemen."

The next challenge is to do again, Sunday in Cleveland.

"I thought our runners ran hard," Payton said. "Someone asked a question yesterday about the significance of the perimeter blocking and I think that is important – especially when you see big runs, generally someone is on the perimeter handling the force.

"This is a tough group we are playing this week. They defend the run real well. They are big.  Their safeties support extremely well. That will be a challenge."

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