Tiny Sproles becoming big force for Saints

New Orleans may have discovered a small force more damaging than Formosan termites:

Darren Sproles(notes).

Like the tiny insects that once threatened to destroy many of the city’s historic homes, the New Orleans Saints running back is laying waste to defenses across the NFL.

The most recent exhibit was last Sunday in a somewhat mundane 23-10 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Sproles quickly and quietly helped end the game by the early part of the second quarter as New Orleans scored on each of its first two drives.

Darren Sproles wreaked havoc on the Jags D early last Sunday.
(US Presswire)

On the Saints’ first series, Sproles ripped off a 19-yard run to the left and then came back with a 9-yard reception in which he came within inches from scoring. The next drive was even more of Sproles. It started with a critical play on third-and-11 when Sproles turned a screen pass into a 14-yard reception. Three plays later, the 5-foot-6, 190-pound Sproles lined up as a slot receiver for an easy 11-yard gain when the Jaguars tried to cover him with a linebacker (yeah, seriously).

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Three plays after that, Sproles was again in the backfield, this time as the Saints lined up in a four-wide receiver set. Just before the snap of the ball, the far right receiver, Lance Moore(notes), moved another five yards outside in an attempt to create more space for Sproles and force the safety out of position. Sproles turned that into a 15-yard carry. On the very next play, the Saints came back to him for a 12-yard reception that again got the ball down to the 1-yard line which New Orleans converted for a second touchdown.

On two drives, Sproles did everything but score. He had a total of six touches for 80 yards as the Saints ran 21 plays for a total of 158 yards. While he may not be the type of player who will get the ball 300 or 350 times over the course of a season, Sproles is an impact player all the same.

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“You think about the things [coach Sean Payton] can do with him and it starts to get really interesting,” Saints wide receiver Marques Colston(notes) said, a sly look forming on his face. “It could be anything by the time it’s said and done.”

No question. With Sproles, not only does Payton have a guy with serious speed and quickness, he has an incredibly willing and dedicated player. The 14-yard reception on third-and-11 is a prime example. Payton hadn’t put that in the Saints offense until last week, working on it twice in practice on Thursday, three more times on Friday and then one more time Saturday at the team walkthrough practice, Sproles said.

“That was the first time we worked on it,” said a grinning Sproles, who was signed to a two-year contract in July as a replacement for Reggie Bush(notes).

Sproles and quarterback Drew Brees(notes) executed it as if they had been running the play since Pop Warner. Sproles waited just long enough before turning upfield to run his route and Brees didn’t look at him until the last second. In turn, the Jacksonville defense dropped deep enough so that Sproles had enough room to get the first down with the help of a nice block along the way.

After the game, Payton downplayed the call as merely a “safe” play. While that’s true, the ability of a team to turn a safe play into a big gain says much about the roster’s depth of talent. Right now, the Saints are the healthiest they have been since the end of 2009, when they won the Super Bowl. With Colston back from a shoulder injury and Moore back from some nagging issues, the receiving corps is incredibly deep. Tight end Jimmy Graham(notes) is showing glimpses of greatness.

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The backfield, well, Brees can’t stop gushing.

“I think this is the best group I’ve been around,” Brees said of Sproles, rookie Mark Ingram(notes) and Pierre Thomas(notes). “Even compared to the group we had in 2005 in San Diego with [LaDainian Tomlinson(notes)], [Michael] Turner and Sproles as a rookie.”

Overstatement? Perhaps a little. Tomlinson is a future Hall of Famer and he had an MVP season in 2006. However, Tomlinson was pretty much the only developed player in that Chargers backfield back then. Turner wasn’t what he has become and Sproles was just figuring it out.

Now, Sproles knows what he’s doing and he has a coach who is fully invested in getting the best out of him. While Sproles struggles to express himself at times because of a speech impediment (he has to slow himself down and keep his words short and to the point), the glee in his eyes is telling.

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“[Payton’s] committed to finding a way,” Sproles said. As of now, the commitment is greater than at any time during Sproles’ six years in San Diego. Through four games, Sproles has 41 touches (15 carries and 26 receptions) for a total of 358 yards and two touchdowns from scrimmage. He has another touchdown on a punt return.

Sproles is on pace for 164 touches, including more than 100 receptions. The most he ever touched the ball from scrimmage in San Diego was 138 times in 2009; he had 109 last season. With coach Norv Turner running the offense, the Chargers have been just a little more conventional over the years.

In New Orleans, Payton is anything but conventional, particularly with unconventional players.

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Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Oct 6, 2011