METAIRIE - None of the Saints running backs are approaching the kind of individual rushing numbers that would merit Pro Bowl consideration.
Together, however, Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas have become a formidable combination.
Jacksonville found that out during a 23-10 loss Sunday in which the Saints amassed 177 yards on the ground.
“If you can get each guy 10 to 12 touches a game, it will keep them fresh throughout the game, keep them fresh throughout the season and keep them healthy,” said fullback Jed Collins, who has been busy learning the nuances of blocking for each of them. “Each guy presents such a different threat ... so it’s neat to see how (Saints coaches) are using each one.”
Although Sean Payton’s offense may always be known more for passing, particularly while Drew Brees is his quarterback, the Saints coach stresses that he understands how crucial a strong ground attack can be.
To Payton, a good running game helps the air attack by making play-action fakes more credible. It also helps with protecting leads by keeping the clock running.
It could come in handy Sunday at Carolina, when New Orleans will want to limit quarterback Cam Newton’s time with the ball.
The Saints have not had a 1,000-yard running back since Deuce McAllister in 2006, Payton’s first season as a head coach. But Payton has made the running-by-committee approach work for him before, most notably in 2009, and hopes to do so again this season.
“It’s really (about) what’s best for your team, just trying to find the things that the players do best and put them in those positions,” Payton said Monday. “It can vary based on the corps of runners. The three guys that are playing right now for us - Pierre, Darren and Mark - are uniquely different in some respects and yet there are some things that all three of them were very comfortable with. ... We just try to keep mixing it and making sure each week that they’ve got a good vision for what they’re going to do.”
Two seasons ago, the Saints ranked sixth in rushing, averaging 131.6 yards per game by spreading carries among Thomas, Reggie Bush, Mike Bell and Lynell Hamilton. The Saints also won the franchise’s first Super Bowl that season.
New Orleans plummeted to 28th in rushing in 2010, in part because of a slew of injuries to running backs, including both Thomas and Bush.
Despite trading Bush to Miami, New Orleans was able to stock up on running backs this season by re-signing Thomas, making a draft-day trade to take Ingram in the first round, and luring Sproles as a free agent.
While Sproles has piled up all-purpose yards because of his effectiveness as a returner and receiver out of the backfield, his rushing totals have been relatively modest. His single-game high for yards rushing is 75.
Ingram’s game-high is 55 yards, while Thomas has yet to eclipse 41 yards rushing in one game.
When looking at yards per carry, though, the story changes. Sproles is averaging 8.9, Thomas is averaging 5, and Ingram a respectable 3.5. Together, they’ve lifted the Saints to 10th in the NFL in rushing, averaging 119 yards on the ground through four games.
Payton also won’t hesitate to surprise opponents by giving carries to a fullback, either, as the Jaguars found out when Collins scored the Saints’ opening touchdown against them from a yard out.
“I’m happy they have confidence in me to give me the ball down there, you know, with our backfield,” Collins said. “It’s a good problem to have with so many guys who can do so many things. ... As a fullback you hope to have one great running back behind you. I get to have three.”
And there soon could be a fourth. Last season’s leading rusher, Chris Ivory, is eligible after Week 6 to come off of the club’s physically unable-to-perform list.
Payton said on Monday that Ivory, who broke his left foot at the end of last season, has completed his rehabilitation and would be ready to play now, if he could.
“That’s coming, and you know, it’s like anything else. When you get to that point, you deal with it,” Payton said. “I know he’s in great shape right now. ... He’s 100 percent and busy just staying in shape and making sure he’s ready for that opportunity.”
Collins said he had little doubt Payton would find a way to make it work.
“Coach Payton loves having weapons, and having these guys this year just added tools to his belt,” Collins said. “I think he’s having a good time with it, and there’s going to be a lot more to come.”