Versatility Makes Saints Threat To Packers

The Saints can be chameleon-like with a productive and versatile stable of runners that run deeper than Drew Brees' receiving corps. That's exactly what coach Sean Payton envisioned as New Orleans hits the postseason — and what makes them Green Bay's prime challenger in the NFC.

NEW ORLEANS — There was probably some poetic justice attached to the fact that left guard Carl Nicks was the first teammate to reach New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees after his record-breaking 9-yard touchdown pass to tailback Darren Sproles late in the Saints' 45-16 walloping of the Atlanta Falcons here Monday night.

Not just because the mammoth Nicks wrapped Brees in a big bear-hug, and then appropriately hoisted the quarterback several feet off the ground, as the New Orleans bench cleared to join in the celebration of the much-anticipated feat. But because Nicks, a four-year veteran named to his first Pro Bowl squad in 2010, symbolizes a component of the Saints that is hardly represented by all of Brees' mind-boggling aerial accomplishments.

The often-overlooked physical nature of the New Orleans offense.

OK, so the Saints' running game, anchored by Nicks and right guard Jahri Evans, isn't exactly a sledgehammer. Neither, though, is it a ball-peen model. The perception of the Saints is that they are strictly a finesse team. But coach Sean Payton has stressed since becoming the New Orleans coach in 2006 that the Saints want to be able to run the ball, too, when called upon to do so.

So the Saints, right tackle Zach Strief stressed after a victory that secured for New Orleans the NFC South title, aren't "just strictly a one-dimensional" offense.

"The last time we played them," Nicks said after Brees' record-setting performance, "they pretty much handed it to us as far as running the ball. I just think we got after them a little more physical tonight."

Indeed, in the Saints' overtime victory at the Georgia Dome on Nov. 13, the Atlanta defense, ranked eighth in the NFL versus the rush, surrendered just 41 yards on 16 attempts. On Monday night, the Falcons were gashed for exactly four times that much real estate, as the Saints registered 23 rushes for 164 yards.

It marked the second straight game in which the unheralded New Orleans running game, which typically gets lost in all of Brees' big numbers and the quick-strike nature of the Saints' passing attack, registered more than 160 yards. The overtime victory against the Falcons is the only time during the Saints' seven-game winning skein that the New Orleans rushing attack has been held to less than 100 yards.

In the seven-game stretch, the Saints have averaged 140.0 rushing yards, had four outings of 160-plus yards and two of 195 yards or more, and averaged 5.3 yards per carry, while scoring seven touchdowns. Clearly, the Saints are hitting their running-game stride at the right time, heading into the playoffs.

Brees is a clever manager, audibling to the run when a defense backs off to play the pass and, thus, is outnumbered in the box. One New Orleans offensive lineman guessed that, of the team's 23 rushes on Monday night, more than half probably came on checkoffs or "check with me" calls by the quarterback.

"(The Falcons) are a tough team to run on," said Evans, a two-time Pro Bowl blocker. "They play with such good discipline against the run. They're good tacklers, and they always seem to maintain their (gap) integrity. So it means something to be able to run the ball against them ... especially the way they stuffed us the last time."

That the Saints exacted such satisfying revenge, netting 164 yards despite not having a runner with more than Sproles' game-high 67 yards (36 of which came on a third-quarter run on a draw-play to the left), was attributable in large part to their ability to dominate the interior of the line of scrimmage. Nicks and Evans, arguably the NFL's premier guard tandem, kept delivering crunching blocks. The pair got to the second level time and again, several times burying Atlanta standout middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, and carving out gaping holes inside.

The normally active Lofton finished with nine tackles, but had just one stop for a loss, and was crushed by Nicks on a 4-yard scoring run by tailback Pierre Thomas that opened the New Orleans scoring. Said Thomas, who celebrated the touchdown by pulling a out a Christmas bow, an indiscretion that elicited a 15-yard penalty, drew the wrath of Payton, and will likely mean a league fine: "Those big guys just knocked everything out of the way. It's what they do. They probably don't get as much credit as they deserve, but they're really good."

Certainly the Saints' offensive line is constructed far differently than most units in the league. New Orleans is powerful inside with Evans and Nicks. That is to take nothing away from tackles Jermon Bushrod or Strief. But the raw power of the guard duo, and the development of center Brian de la Puente, who moved into the starting lineup when perennial Pro Bowl snapper Olin Kreutz abruptly retired, has made for a formidable blocking unit. General manager Mickey Loomis — again, in the reverse of the way things generally are in the league — has built from the inside out and paid big money for the guards.

It might surprise some people to know that the Saints rank No. 9 in the league in rushing offense, and that New Orleans is one of only two teams in the NFL to rate statistically in the top 10 in both rushing and passing offense. The Saints average 4.84 yards per run, sixth in the league. They have 13 rushes of 20 yards or more, the ninth most in the league, but interesting is that New Orleans is one of just seven teams without a 40-yard run in 15 outings. In fact, Sproles' 36-yard gallop Monday night was the club's longest run of the 2011 season.

"I think that's kind of typical of us," said Sproles, who leads the Saints with 563 rushing yards. "We're not going to break off the big run. But we're going to keep hammering it out, moving the ball, making (defenses) stay somewhat honest. We do it our way."

Normally, the Payton way is to jump out to a lead via the pass, then run the ball in the second half to close out the game. But the win over the Falcons represented the first time during the Saints' seven-game streak that New Orleans actually ran more times in the first half (13) than the second. That wasn't necessarily by design, Brees and Payton said, but because the run was working so well and the Saints seemed to be denting the Falcons, knocking the front seven off the line of scrimmage, forcing the Atlanta safeties to make stops. It was telling that free safety Thomas Decoud was the leading Falcons' tackler, with 10.

The Saints haven't had an individual 100-yard rusher all season — in fact, the club's last 100-yard outing was Chris Ivory's 117-yard performance against Cincinnati on Dec. 5, 2010 — and 19 games have passed since the last one. First-round pick Mark Ingram, who hasn't played the last three games because of a heel injury, has the club's season high, with 91 yards against Indianapolis on Oct. 23.

But in Payton's tailback-by-committee approach, a hallmark of his coaching tenure, the Saints have three runners with 400-plus yards and four backs who have rushed for more than 250 yards. Five times they have had at least two backs with 50 yards or more in a game; they've played two games with three backs who gained 50 yards or more.

New Orleans has only three instances this season in which a back rushed for more than 75 yards, and two of those occasions came in the 62-7 victory over Indianapolis on Oct. 23. But the New Orleans rushing game, which hasn't had a 1,000-yard runner since Deuce McAllister in 2006, is more than about just killing a defense softly. And the tandem of Nicks and Evans, in particular, demonstrated that Monday night.

"The people who think we can't run it ... well, let ‘em keep thinking that," Nicks said.

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Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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