Saints gaining faith in their run game

July, 29, 2014
Jul 29
8:00
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WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. -- New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief made a bold proclamation Monday, saying, "I think we can be as good as a running team as we have ever been."

And running back Pierre Thomas talked in a similar excited fashion about the run game the other day, saying among other things that, "We are putting in more time on the running game than I have ever seen before."

It would be natural to hear comments like that and be a little skeptical. The Saints seem to talk every summer about putting more emphasis on the run game -- but then the results have been decidedly hit and miss each season.

However, I've begun to sense one big difference while hearing folks talk about the run game this summer: Confidence.

[+] EnlargeKhiry Robinson
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsThe Saints found their running groove late in the 2013 season and during their playoff win at Philadelphia.
Both Strief and coach Sean Payton sounded Monday like they were very encouraged and energized by the success the Saints started to have in the run game late last season -- especially in their playoff victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.

And they seem to genuinely expect that progress to continue in the second year under offensive line coach Bret Ingalls, who introduced more of a zone-running scheme last year.

"I think that Pierre is right," Strief said after the Saints' run blocking was particularly impressive during Monday's practice session. "I think that last year there was kind of a renewed focus, and yet there was a big change that happened last year. I think going into this year there is a lot more understanding, a much better consistent understanding from linemen, tight ends, backs, on what exactly we are doing.

"There's that same emphasis that we had last year. (But) there's a little bit of success early, and I think there is a lot more confidence in it right now. And I think guys are really excited in that part of the practice."

Payton, meanwhile, has consistently talked about how he wants to do a better job of "controlling" the final four minutes of close games -- whether that's running the ball or stopping the run. The Saints struggled at times in both areas last year before improving late in the season.

When asked if the Saints need to counteract the dominant teams in the NFC like Seattle and San Francisco, Payton said, "Well, we think we're one of those teams."

"We played that way in our first playoff game against Philadelphia and really approached the second playoff game (at Seattle) much the same way," Payton said. "Now, do we want to improve in that area? Yes. But we feel like that's going to be important for us, and we feel like we're one of those teams."

The Saints certainly have the talent to do it. They have a deep running back corps led by Thomas, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson (who continued to impress in Monday's practice). And they have proven veteran blockers like Strief, Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs and tight end Benjamin Watson, among others.

The Saints also have shown an ability to run the ball efficiently in the past, especially in their two most prolific offensive seasons of 2009 and 2011 (when they twice had the No. 6-ranked rushing attack in the NFL).

And that's the blueprint here. Nobody is talking about the Saints changing their offensive identity.

They're talking about being more efficient when they run -- and being able to consistently make teams pay for trying to sit back in coverage like Philadelphia or New England did last year.

The Saints would have no problem with a repeat of 2011, when they threw for more than 5,300 yards and still ran for more than 2,100.

"We have one of the best quarterbacks (Drew Brees) in the history of the NFL, and we are going to throw the football," Strief said. "But when we get a chance to run it, I know we want five (yards) a carry. I know that we want to be efficient. And if you look back at the years that we have been successful, I think that is really where the importance is. ...

"I don't think that we need to be the 49ers where we are running the ball 50 times a game, because I think that we have different pieces in place to be effective in the passing game. But I think the mindset of this camp is that we have to be a lot more efficient than we have been. I think we are off to a good start with it."

Mike Triplett

ESPN New Orleans Saints reporter

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