New Orleans running back Darren Sproles returned to a limited practice on Wednesday, and looked "dynamite" according to interim head coach Joe Vitt. So that's an encouraging assessment. Sproles has missed the Saints' last two games, but it sounds as if he'll soon be back in the mix, wearing a protective glove on his surgically repaired left hand.
When No. 43 reappears, he'll further complicate a murky yet increasingly productive running-back-by-committee arrangement. New Orleans has totaled 288 rushing yards over the past two weeks in wins over Philadelphia and Atlanta. The team has relied on a three-headed attack, with Mark Ingram running surprisingly well (23 carries, 111 yards), Chris Ivory absolutely beasting (17 carries, 120 yards, 2 TDs, this thing), and Pierre Thomas collecting the scraps (11 carries, 54 yards).
Sproles, without question, is one of the NFL's most dangerous ball carriers, and his role in the Saints' offense is actually somewhat predictable: typically 3-5 carries, 6-9 targets per week. Assuming he's active at Oakland on Sunday, you can pencil him in for 9-12 touches.
As for the rest of this backfield ... well, that's a riddle. At this point, the New Orleans committee is large enough to form subcommittees.
On Wednesday, Vitt offered a few thoughts:
''We're going to activate whoever gives us the best chance to win. That changes week to week on the opponent that we're playing, the fronts that we're seeing, the potential weather we're playing in,'' Vitt said. ''Those things help us make a decision on a week to week basis on who will play in the game.''
Based on Ivory's production these last two weeks, it's tough to imagine the third-year back returning to the inactive list. Since Vitt mentioned weather as a factor, we should note that Oakland expects a rainy, messy weekend. I'm assuming that Vitt will continue to favor the ground game, considering the team's recent success, the potential field conditions, and the friendly match-up. The Raiders defense ranks 21st in the league against the run (119.0 YPG), and they've allowed the third-most rushing TDs (13).
For now, I've got Sproles ranked No. 21 among all running backs for Week 11, with both Ingram and Ivory in the high-20s. But I've shuffled and reshuffled this bunch a few times. Thomas has led all New Orleans backs in snaps over the past two games, yet he's third in touches. It's tough to build a strong flex case for PT right now (or even an ownership case). If Sproles isn't quite ready to return, Ivory and Ingram would get the value bumps.
If you're avoiding the Saints backfield this week, I get it. Not everyone has that luxury, however. And again, the match-up is plenty tempting.
Feel free to share a few thoughts on the committee in comments, as we continue to workshop this mess. I've got no firm answers today -- let's wait for additional practice reports -- but I'm looking for any reason to squeeze Ivory into a lineup. (Remember when he did this to a bunch of junior varsity Chargers? Good times). If he's in line for 8-12 carries at Oakland, I'm on board.