Rob Ryan strolled into New Orleans in the offseason and took over as the Saints defensive coordinator. Success followed.
Ryan led the overhaul, changed the scheme and turned this New Orleans defense into a powerhouse. The Saints rank seventh in the NFL, averaging 317.6 total yards allowed per game after finishing dead last in 2012, giving up a historically bad 440.1 yards per game a year ago.
Instead of a 4-5 record after nine games, like last season, New Orleans leads the NFC South at 7-2.
The Saints winning with defense just doesn’t sound right. This team is coached by Sean Payton, an offense mastermind. The quarterback is Drew Brees, one of the greatest passers of this era.
Brees and the Saints offense showed the NFL world Sunday night that it’s still his side of the football that makes the music play in town. New Orleans set an NFL record by moving the chains to the tune of 40 first downs. The Saints also set a franchise record with 625 total yards.
Brees deserves a ton of credit for the 49-17 win over the Dallas Cowboys. He paced the Saints as they tallied 383 yards through the air and notched 20 first downs with passes. But the names on the marquee, the guys who truly made Week 10 special on offense for New Orleans were running backs Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas.
The Saints gained 242 yards on the ground against the Cowboys, and Ingram and Thomas each averaged over five yards per carry. Ingram ran for a career-high 145 yards and averaged 10.4 yards per carry. Thomas added 87 yards on 5.1 yards per carry.
Since 2006, the year Payton and Brees showed up, the Saints had never had a better rushing game. Only seven times prior had the Saints rushed for over 200 yards on the ground in a regular-season game. Every time it had been done, New Orleans won. The same held true Sunday.
|Saints: Games with 200+ yards on Ground since 2006|
|Opponent||Rushing Yards||Passing Yards||W/L|
|Dallas Cowboys, 2013||242||383||W|
|Indianapolis Colts, 2011||236||321||W|
|New York Giants, 2006||236||113||W|
|Buffalo Bills, 2009||222||156||W|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2010||212||263||W|
|Carolina Panthers, 2011||208||409||W|
|New York Giants, 2011||205||372||W|
|St. Louis Rams, 2009||203||217||W|
|Pro Football Reference|
Now you can see why Payton wants a power rushing game in New Orleans.
Almost as soon as Payton walked back through the doors from his year-long suspension, he started preaching to his team the importance of running the football. Back in May, Thomas told Larry Holder of the Times-Picayune New Orleans was going to make the run game more of a focal point.
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.
It hasn’t exactly worked like Payton had hoped.
Even after Sunday’s 242-yard ground performance, the Saints rank 23rd in the league with a 97.8 yards-per-game average on the ground. Only three times (including Week 10) had New Orleans gained over 100 yards rushing as a team. Brees, as he’s done for the most part since his arrival in New Orleans, has been bailing out this offense with his arm.
But this Week 10 win was an example of both the ground game and the aerial attack working in conjunction. When that happens, there isn’t a team in the NFL that can stop these Saints—especially now that Ryan has bolstered the defense.
It also helps when the majority of the offensive unit shows up with personal bests. ESPN.com NFL Nation reporter Mike Triplett said that almost every player on offense had the best game of their individual seasons.
There were probably nine or 10 guys who had their best games of the season, from quarterback Drew Brees to running back Mark Ingram to receiver Marques Colston to every run-blocker.
Ingram’s transformation is one of the most promising moving forward.
Slowed by injury and lackluster play, Ingram played in just three games prior to Sunday’s win and gained 50 yards on 21 carries. That 2.4 yards-per-carry average drew the ire of Saints fans who booed just about every time he touched the ball.
Ingram started quickly against the Cowboys with a 13-yard run on his first carry but slowed with a one-yard gain directly after in the second quarter. His next two runs—back-to-back carries of 14 and 34 yards—hushed the naysayers and elevated Ingram out of knucklehead status.
Payton told the media Monday, shown in this Times-Picayune video, that Ingram made the most of his opportunities and handled himself properly while things weren’t going well.
You saw a player that ran hard and had holes and did a lot of the things he felt he could do. He got the right opportunity and the right number of touches. I thought he played exceptionally well.
Triplett was right on the money when he said every lineman had a great day run blocking. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), all five starting linemen had positive run-blocking grades, four of which (left tackle Charles Brown, left guard Ben Grubbs, right guard Jahri Evans and right tackle Zach Strief) had the best run-blocking days of their seasons.
If the New Orleans offensive line can continue to open holes like it did in Week 10 and if Ingram and Thomas, and to a certain extent Darren Sproles, can continue blasting through them, there’s nothing this offensive unit can’t do.
It’s scary to think how Brees could carve up a defense if the 11 guys on the opposite side had to take a step or two toward the line of scrimmage to focus on a power running game. Well, really we don’t have to think about it, Brees showed us with his arm on Sunday.
The Saints are truly unstoppable on offense with Brees at the helm and the running game churning yardage. If their Week 10 performance becomes the norm, this isn’t just a division-leading team with playoff aspirations, the Saints will quickly become Super Bowl favorites.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.