COMMENTARY | After starting the 2012 NFL season with an 0-4 record, it's hard to quibble with the New Orleans Saints' incredible start in 2013.
QB Drew Brees is putting up his typical amazing passing numbers. Jimmy Graham just became the first TE in history to win the NFC Offensive Player of the Month award. And the Saints defense is playing as well as it has since the days of the Dome Patrol 20 years ago. But Saints' fans are concerned about New Orleans' inability to generate an effective running game through Week 5.
Going into Week 6, the Saints offense ranks near the top of the NFL in most yards per game. Ranking among the league leaders in offense is nothing new since Sean Payton arrived in New Orleans. Even in the Saints' subpar seasons, the offense has always ranked near the top of the NFL in most categories. But in 2013, New Orleans ranks near the bottom of the NFL in rushing yards per game.
The conventional wisdom in New Orleans is that the Saints' best seasons (13-3 and a Super Bowl victory in 2009 and another 13-3 season in 2011) have both come as a result of a balanced attack from the offense. In 2009, the Saints ranked fourth and sixth in NFL passing and rushing yards, respectively. And in 2011, the Saints ranked first and sixth in NFL passing and rushing yards, respectively.
Most people in New Orleans are blaming the Saints' weak running game on Mark Ingram. In the first two games of the 2013 season, Ingram rushed for 31 yards on 17 carries. This works out to an appallingly low 1.8 yards per carry. Since then, Ingram has been out of action due to a toe injury. In two-plus NFL seasons, Ingram has done little to warrant the first round pick that the Saints used on him in the 2011 NFL Draft.
However, the other Saints RBs have also been ineffective before the games have gotten out of reach. Rookie free agent RB Khiry Robinson looked good when New Orleans was running out the clock against the Arizona Cardinals. But he struggled against the Miami Dolphins when the outcome was still in question. Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles have also struggled in the running game.
Although I cannot make excuses for Mark Ingram's poor play since 2011, the Saints' offensive line is the biggest culprit in New Orleans' struggling rushing attack this season. Evidence of this can also be found in the number of times Drew Brees has been sacked in 2013. Through Week 5, New Orleans has given up 13 sacks. In 2011, the Saints only allowed 24 sacks, which ranked second best in the NFL.
However, despite all evidence to the contrary, I believe the New Orleans Saints can win Super Bowl 48 without a strong running game. We began to see evidence of how this could happen in the win over the Dolphins. Although New Orleans couldn't run the ball, Sean Payton compensated for this with a virtual running game. Darren Sproles gave the Dolphins fits in the open field after receiving swing passes and screen passes out of the backfield.
The other variable in the Saints' equation for success in 2013 is the defense. When New Orleans won Super Bowl 44, the Saints defense was opportunistic in forcing turnovers, but they still ranked in the lower half of the NFL in yards allowed. If new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan continues to work his magic with his young, overachieving squad in New Orleans, it won't matter how the Saints are scoring points on offense.
In a perfect world, all head coaches would love to have a balanced attack on offense. But a great defense and an offensive genius can compensate for a shortcoming in one area. And if opposing defenses pressure Drew Brees, then the Saints' short passing game will continue to exploit this. Despite a bad running game, the 2013 Saints still look like an outstanding NFL team, which could mean a "Two Dat" is close at hand in New Orleans.
Patrick Michael lives in New Orleans and has always been a big fan of the New Orleans Saints. Patrick's favorite Saints season was 2009 when New Orleans won Super Bowl 44. Follow Patrick Michael on Twitter at patmichael84.
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