One of the first items New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton said he wanted to do upon his return to the team this season was to enhance the focus on the running game.
Running back Pierre Thomas told Larry Holder of The Times-Picayune in May that during the team’s first meeting with Payton, the head coach laid out his ideas about running the ball on offense:
Sean talked about that when he came back. When we had our first team meeting, he talked about that. He said we definitely need to get back to that ground game.
There's going to be more focus this year on that ground game than any year. He said we've got to get back to running the ball, having 100-yard games non-stop. I can't wait. I'm excited and I know everybody else is excited.
Through the first quarter of the 2013 season, Payton’s plan hasn’t come to fruition.
The Saints, however, have a healthy 4-0 record, rank fourth in the league in total yards per game (419.5) and rank seventh with a 27 points per game scoring average. New Orleans has had much success on offense, even though the team has only eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark once and averages a paltry 81.3 yards per game on the ground.
How can the Saints have one of the more potent offenses in the league even though one of the head coaches’ top goals hasn’t been met?
Running back Darren Sproles is the answer.
Spread over four games, Sproles only has 93 yards on the ground on 22 carries, and he has scored just once via a rushing play. But Sproles is an extremely versatile back, as he’s also caught 23 passes for 277 yards and a touchdown. It’s his ability to catch passes out of the backfield and make plays with his legs that allows Sproles to be such a vital piece of this New Orleans offense.
Quarterback Drew Brees is able to move the Saints down the field almost at will because Sproles is so effective out of the backfield, and opposing defenses have been forced to play close to the line of scrimmage to stop him.
When the Saints beat the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football, Sproles immediately altered the course of the game. In the first half, he had just one carry for five yards (although it was a touchdown run) but caught seven passes for 114 yards and a touchdown.
Here, on just the third play from scrimmage, Sproles lines up in the backfield with Brees, who is set up in a shotgun formation:
The play gained five yards, but more important than the yardage was how Miami was reacting to the play.
Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe was quickly in pursuit as Sproles went in motion pre-snap into the flat. Safety Chris Clemons also reacted and was forced to come down into the flat to help stop Sproles.
This play was set up by the Saints’ second play from scrimmage, a flat-and-up by Sproles that netted many more yards.
Brees called an audible while already in a shotgun formation with an empty backfield. Sproles was set up to the left in the slot.
Sproles started his route headed into the flat, and safety Reshad Jones bit on that early portion of the route.
As soon as Jones did, Sproles turned up field and got into space.
Brees hit Sproles in stride and the running back had a wide open field ahead of him. Clemons, who was covering the other half of the field as a deep safety, had to close ground to force Sproles out of bounds.
The play gained 48 yards and clued Miami’s defense into the fact that Sproles was going to be a huge part of the game plan early.
Sproles averaged seven yards per attempt on four carries on Monday night, and he also caught seven passes, all in the first half. Because he was such a versatile target early on, Miami seemed to always have a linebacker keyed in on him, and one of the safeties was on constant alert to help if needed.
This fixation on Sproles (or any running back for that matter) allowed Brees to carve up the Dolphins defense over the middle and deep down the field.
In the third quarter, the Saints sent Thomas from the running back position into the flat on the left side of the field, and a safety immediately followed.
Brees hit wide receiver Marques Colston on the right side for 15 yards after he had gotten a step ahead of his cover corner.
There was some extra space for Brees to slip the ball in, as linebackers Phillip Wheeler and Ellerbe were making sure Brees didn’t dump the ball into the flat.
Later in the third quarter, tight end Jimmy Graham scored on a somewhat easy 43-yard touchdown catch. He ran a straight seam pattern and got behind Clemons for the score.
You can see for a split-second that Clemons was looking elsewhere and was not completely focused on Graham in coverage. Clemons could have looked to see if he had help from the free safety (who had been moved slightly to the other side of the field by a dummy route). Or it’s possible that Clemons might have been looking for one of the running backs beneath the route Graham was running.
Whatever caused Clemons’ hesitation, the Dolphins paid dearly for it.
Between Sproles and Thomas, the two running backs were targeted 14 times in the passing game by Brees and caught 12 passes. These receptions not only helped the Saints churn out yardage, but they also helped open the field for Brees to use deception and gain huge plays through the air.
As long as Sproles is making things happen with his versatility, as much as Payton would like the Saints to use a power running game and gain 100 yards every game, they don’t need to.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.