March is not only the time of year where NFL executives and coaches focus their energies on roster construction and personnel. It is in these final weeks of winter where teams put the onus on themselves to find ways to improve what happens with these rosters and their personnel on the field. This is the time of year to review and study the tape. To find new and innovative ways to maximize their talents and further enhance their chances of achieving success on Sundays in the fall. March is not just a time to add, release or retain talent, it's a time to find ways to get the most out of that talent.
As far as the New Orleans Saints are concerned, scoring points and moving the ball down the field has seemingly never been an issue with Sean Payton and Drew Brees at the controls. However, the team has done most of its damage through the air as Brees spreads the ball around at will to his playmakers. The Saints want to put more of an emphasis on a ball control ground game heading into the 2014 season, and the timing could not be better. As the 2013 regular season began to draw to a close, the Saints turned to their young Running Backs, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson, to help carry them to the finish line. This set the stage for the team to make a slight philosophical shift in how it plans on keeping defenses off balance in the future. Khiry Robinson should play a big part in 2014 for the Saints
In the first 14 games of 2013, New Orleans backs averaged just over a combined 23 carries per game. Fast forward to the final two regular season games and the two postseason games, and that number rose to over 30. During those four games, Ingram and Robinson emerged as the main threats as Pierre Thomas nursed a chest injury which cut his season short, and Darren Sproles operated mostly in his usual role as a satellite scat-back making plays in the passing game.
Robinson showed the ability to make powerful runs in between the tackles, while also displaying the speed to get to the edge and elude defenders in pursuit. Ingram, meanwhile, showed progression after a topsy-turvy start to his NFL career. Rather than dancing around the backfield looking for openings, Ingram showed improved patience and diagnosis of where the play was supposed to go. Once in the open field, his vision and elusiveness, two of his best abilities, helped him generate more positive runs. Both players will have to take their momentum into the offseason and develop their skills in the passing game, as understanding protections and the ability to catch and run are key ingredients Payton looks for in his backs.
Furthermore, the two young backs appeared to compliment one another very well in the last four games, with Sproles sprinkled in as well. Now that Sproles has been traded to the Eagles, the Saints' current backfield looks like this: Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet. Cadet has been mooted as a possible in-house replacement for the departed Sproles, while Thomas agrred to a 2 year contract extension to remain with the Saints. Thomas, Ingram and Robinson figure to remain as the three main ball carriers in 2014. Making a newfound committment to the running game requires such a stable of capable backs, and the Saints certainly have this. Mark Ingram figures to see more carries in 2014
The benefit of putting an emphasis on making the run game a bigger part of the offense is twofold. Not only will it balance the play calls and put the team in better situations to control the clock and sustain drives, but will also keep the defense fresh. Payton was able to identify that the Saints' defense played much less snaps than they did in 2012 thanks to a more run-heavy gameplan in those last 4 games. This was important as the Saints made a major jump from historically bad proportions in 2012 to a respectable, formiddable unit in 2013 under Rob Ryan. Less snaps for the defense means a fresher, more effective defense which becomes even more of an asset in the friendly confines of the Superdome. A fresh Saints defense and a tired opposing defense go hand-in-hand with the would-be benefits of a more emphasized and effective run game.
The turning point for the basis of this philosophical adjustment seemed to come during the Saints' embarrassing week 15 loss at St. Louis. The fallout of that game saw the team make changes to its personnel and brought forth the want to stress the importance of running the football and sustain drives. Out went Charles Brown and Garrett Hartley. In came Terron Armstead and Shayne Graham. The rushes increased, the defensive snaps decreased. Young players emerged and displayed their worth. The team split their last two regular season games and did the same in their two playoff matchups. Nevertheless, the wheels were put in motion for the Saints to become that more well-rounded Football team they may need to become in an attempt to dethrone the Seattle Seahawks next season.
No New Orleans Saints Running Back has eclipsed 200 carries since Deuce McAllister did so in 2006, Payton's first season as coach. The team has enjoyed most of its success under Payton when they cumulitavely rush for 1,700 yards or more in a season. With a stable of young backs to compliment Brees and his weapons in the passing game, the opportunity will be there for the Saints to gel into this well-balanced machine that Payton envisages. Add two pro bowl offensive linemen in Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, and there are certainly pieces to work with.
Payton is not afraid of change, especially when it comes to finding ways to better his offense. Less responsibility on Drew Brees's arm, less snaps for an improving defense, and a more effective rushing attack seems to be on the agenda for the 2014 Saints. If anyone can find a way to implement these adjustments, it is Sean Payton. The fact that he has already begun to discuss the need for a more balanced offense is a sign of a coach who has experienced success, and knows what it takes to taste that success again.