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Latavius Murray always prepared for when New Orleans Saints need punishing ground game

'It's a test of which team is more physical and obviously, you want to be on the winning side of that'

Game action photos from the New Orleans Saints playing host to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1 of the 2020 NFL season.
Game action photos from the New Orleans Saints playing host to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1 of the 2020 NFL season.

When the New Orleans Saints unveiled their offensive game plan in-house for Sunday's regular-season opener against Tampa Bay in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, running back Latavius Murray might have started smiling.

The kind of ground game the Saints needed to employ against Tampa Bay – the league's top run defense last season – leans toward a player with Murray's abilities.

The Buccaneers have been like a wall, including a league-low 73.8 rushing yards allowed per game last season, and 3.3 yards per carry. An opponent needs a hammer to weaken it or, at least, to continue pounding so it understands the hammer possesses the same level of unwillingness to yield.

So when the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Murray was informed that his plate would be amply filled, he was prepared for the challenge.

"I think during the week (is when his excitement began climbing), when you're getting the gameplan knowing that it's going to be one of those games, and you just know the mentality and the physicality that needs to take place on our end in order for us to be successful," Murray said Monday. "So those games, you just look forward to. It's a test of which team is more physical and obviously, you want to be on the winning side of that and be the team that's most physical and dominate. I think it's a statement."

For the Saints and Murray, it wasn't a totally resounding statement statistically. In the 34-23 victory, New Orleans totaled 82 rushing yards on 34 carries, and Murray accounted for 48 yards on 15 carries.

But it was the kind of lifting that kept the Bucs honest defensively, and the kind that Murray is well-prepared to deliver.

"You want to stay balanced, but you want to keep that pressure on those guys, so they're just not pinning their ears back and rushing the quarterback when we do throw it," he said. "So, keeping them on their toes and making it an emphasis to run the ball so we can continue to do the things we want to do on offense – when we do want to play-action, drop back.

"Just keeping the defense guessing. And when we're able to do that and run the ball successfully, that opens up the offense to more things we're able to do."

The Saints learned last year how successful that approach can be in games against Chicago and Arizona, when Murray was the workhorse as Alvin Kamara sat out with injury. In those games, Murray carried 27 times for 119 yards and two touchdowns, and had five catches for 31 yards against Chicago, and had 21 carries for 102 yards and a touchdown, with nine catches for 55 yards and another score, against Arizona.

He and Kamara (12 carries for 16 yards and a touchdown) almost evenly split their rush attempts against Tampa Bay. The gameplan might not call for such a split each week, but Murray will be ready for when it does.

"I just think that's how the game went (Sunday)," he said. "We had the lead late in the game, so we wanted to eat some time up with the clock and kind of got in a four-minute (offense) mode.

"It's going to fluctuate throughout the year, I learned that last year. So we're prepared to, whatever the game plan looks like or entails week in and week out, we accept that because we know that everything is toward winning. That's all it's about at this point."

SHORT HOP: The pop-up kickoff in the fourth quarter against Tampa Bay, which led to a fumble that the Saints recovered while leading 31-17, was a simple strategic decision, Coach Sean Payton said. New Orleans was kicking off from midfield due to a penalty assessment; Tampa Bay picked up a 15-yard face mask on Emmanuel Sanders' 5-yard touchdown catch. So, rather than boot it deep with kicker Wil Lutz, punter Thomas Morstead – whose famously executed the "Ambush" onside kick in Super Bowl XLIV – popped it up to the 17. Bucs safety Mike Edwards muffed it, New Orleans' Bennie Fowler III recovered it and New Orleans added the field goal that ended its scoring.

"There's some games a year ago where you might say, 'Hey, we'll take that ball on the 1-yard line, half the distance from the 2, and then try to get a two-point play,' " Payton said. "Or, you can take it at the 50 and if you take it at the 50, do you just kick it into the end zone? At that minute, you don't realize any of the penalty yards. So a lot of times, you'll try to get a little bit of height with the kickoff and then try to gain that penalty yards, if you will, on your coverage and pin a team down in there. And that was kind of the direction we were heading. The turnover was lagniappe. We were able to get on the ball, but you're trying to figure out what you want to do when there's a penalty on the scoring play like that."

NO CHANGE: Payton didn't relent Monday on his harsh Sunday assessment of his play-calling in the season opener. "I put us in some tough spots – I said this after the game – especially with some run calls," he said. "There's a lot we'll be able to clean up. When you look at the third-down numbers (5 for 15) or even the red zone numbers (3 for 6), those are going to have to be better. But overall, it was good to get the first win. There's a ton that we have to clean up and we're going to be able to in this long week."

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