There was nothing dominant about the way the defending champion New Orleans Saints played in their first five games, when they were outscored and struggled to generate any production on the ground.
They seem to be well on the way to correcting both problems.
The Saints’ rushing attack helped provide a previously unseen offensive balance in a Week 6 blowout, building momentum the team shouldn’t have difficulty sustaining Sunday when it hosts the banged-up Cleveland Browns.
New Orleans (4-2) outscored opponents by 99 points through five games in 2009, establishing it as the NFL’s top offensive club on the way to its first Super Bowl victory.
The Saints scored 99 points in their first five games this season, getting outscored by three points during a 3-2 start that left plenty of doubts about their status as the NFC’s best team. A running game that ranked 29th in the league at 75.6 yards per game - one that’s missing Reggie Bush(notes) and Pierre Thomas(notes) - was of particular concern.
New Orleans had the breakout performance it was waiting for Sunday. Drew Brees(notes) threw three touchdown passes and little-known Chris Ivory ran for 158 yards on 15 carries as the Saints cruised to a 31-6 road win over Tampa Bay.
“We’re a confident group. We’ve got some swagger,” Brees said. “We know how good we are and how good we can be, and I still don’t feel like we’ve scratched the surface as to where we can go as a football team. I feel like (this) was definitely a step in the right direction in all phases.”
More consistency on the ground would certainly serve New Orleans well. The Saints’ 212 rushing yards against the Buccaneers were their most in more than a year, and they moved to 14-1 in the last 15 games in which they’ve run for at least 120.
“We just know the importance of the run game and obviously the success that allowed us to have last year,” Brees said. “… You can’t be one-dimensional in this league. … You got to have a healthy mix and healthy balance of the run and pass.”
For now, it appears Ivory will be the go-to back. The undrafted free agent from Division II Tiffin had as many carries as fellow backups Julius Jones(notes) and Ladell Betts(notes) combined, a trend that should continue with Bush (leg) out this week and Thomas (ankle) likely to miss a fourth straight game.
Coach Sean Payton, though, is hardly ready to anoint Ivory a star.
“He does some good things, and there’s some things he’s got to work on to get better,” Payton said.
Cleveland (1-5) has had trouble containing the running game the past two weeks, surrendering an average of 143.0 yards in losses to Atlanta and Pittsburgh.
The Browns’ 28-10 defeat to the Steelers on Sunday was their first by more than 10 points, but there was a positive development in the defeat. Rookie Colt McCoy(notes) played well in his first NFL start, shaking off five sacks and two interceptions to throw for 281 yards and a touchdown against one of the league’s best defenses.
It appears that McCoy will be - for this week at least. Jake Delhomme(notes) and Seneca Wallace(notes) are still in walking boots with high ankle sprains, and with a bye week following the trip to New Orleans, it seems unlikely that coach Eric Mangini will throw either back in Sunday.
Mangini did say Friday he expects kick returner Josh Cribbs to play after he was cleared to practice. Cribbs suffered a concussion last week on a hit from Pittsburgh’s James Harrison(notes) and so did fellow receiver Mohamed Massaquoi(notes), who was ruled out Saturday.
Two days earlier, however, the Browns found out they’ll be without two key linemen for the rest of the season. Defensive end Robaire Smith(notes) (back) and offensive tackle Tony Pashos(notes) (ankle) were placed on injured reserve.
While Hillis has been one of Cleveland’s pleasant surprises, he has struggled to a 3.1 yards-per-carry average the past two weeks following consecutive 100-yard games.
Facing New Orleans’ improved run defense isn’t likely to help. The Saints have limited Arizona and Tampa Bay to 2.0 yards a carry the past two games.
The Browns lead the series 11-4, but the Saints won the most recent meeting 19-14 in Cleveland on Sept. 10, 2006 - Payton’s first game as coach and Brees’ debut under center with New Orleans.