METAIRIE, La. – For much of the 2012 season, those involved in the Saints’ run game constantly heard about how poorly they were doing.
About how for the Saints to succeed, there had to be better balance and better production.
This in spite of finishing in the top half of the league in yards-per-carry at 4.26.
So, they watched film. Lots of it. Of other teams. Of successful run teams. Of individual linemen and blockers.
“We’ve watched this offseason a lot the premier running offense teams – the Vikings, the Seahawks, the Niners, the Texans – kind of picked through their stuff and learned from them,” fullback Jed Collins said. “A lot of it is technically sound. Once we’re able to flow and run their plays like they run them along with what else we do on offense, I think it’ll be a pretty good one-two punch.”
The result? A rededication to the run game that involves a slight scheme change that will be unveiled in full Sunday in New Orleans’ season opener against Atlanta at noon in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
While two of the teams Collins said the Saints watched had run games based on the otherworldly capability of young, athletic quarterbacks (Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco and Russell Wilson in Seattle), all four have powerful running backs that are physical but quick.
In San Francisco, it’s Frank Gore. Seattle has Marshawn Lynch. Minnesota uses Adrian Peterson. And Houston is built on Arian Foster’s back.
Not that checking out what other teams is abnormal. But it’s the extent to which the Saints took time to look at those teams that was different, Collins said.
“This offseason as we were installing, we definitely watched how other teams who are successful run things,” the fullback said. “That’s part of this business, is seeing what’s successful and learning how to beat the best.”
When the Saints have had their most success under coach Sean Payton – 2009 and 2011 – their yard-per-carry average has been at least 4.5 yards. In 2012, Seattle was No. 5 at 4.81 yards, San Francisco No. 3 at 5.06 yards and Minnesota No. 1 at 5.42 yards.
But while there may be a correlation to yards-per-carry and success, it’s not a causation. Since 2006, three teams have won Super Bowls (Pittsburgh in 2008, Green Bay in 2010, New York Giants in 2011) with averages of 3.81 yards or less.
Still, the Saints plan on getting back to running the ball better with mainstays Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles. How they do will largely depend on the line and how it utilizes some outside zone run schemes put in this offseason.
“You can get down to technique,” center Brian de la Puente said. “For me, what center is having success on these types of blocks? When you can get really detailed like that, it’s not all game plan. Those teams that do have a lot of success running the ball year in, year out, what are they doing? We want to learn from it.”
To that end, de la Puente observed Seattle’s Max Unger and Houston’s Chris Myers.
Ultimately, running the ball not only tires a defense out, it keeps the others team’s offense off the field. Houston, Seattle and San Francisco were all top 10 teams in time of possession in 2012.
“However it shakes it out, us having the football will keep points in our favor,” de la Puente said. “At the end of the day, you’ve got to think about that.”
Make no mistake. The Saints are interested in being a top of the heap rushing team.
“We’re embarrassed when we don’t get our yards a game,” Collins said. “That needs to be a challenge. To be a great prolific offense that they’ve had here, you’ve got to be able to run the ball.”