METAIRIE - Eight games do not make a season, but opponents appear to have the New Orleans Saints defense on the run.
The NFC South-leading Saints rank last in the NFL in rushing yards per attempt, yielding 5.5 yards per carry, strongly suggesting offseason efforts made by team officials to upgrade the defense are not producing the desired results.
That average per carry is even greater over the past five games - 5.8 yards - with running backs DeAngelo Williams (115) of Carolina, Earnest Graham (109) of Tampa Bay and Steven Jackson of St. Louis (159) each eclipsing the century mark in October.
That matches last season’s number of 100-yard rushing games against the Saints turned in by opposing running backs Frank Gore (112) of San Francisco, Michael Turner (114) of Atlanta and Ray Rice (153) of Baltimore.
In addition, Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch joined the “Century Club” in the playoffs, rambling for 131 yards in a 41-36 wild-card victory against the Saints at Qwest Field.
That game featured Lynch’s epic 67-yard touchdown gallop in the fourth quarter and punctuated the Saints’ need to beef up their run defense during the offseason.
It ultimately triggered the signing of free agent defensive tackles Shaun Rogers, age 32, before the NFL lockout and Aubrayo Franklin, 31, after the lockout.
After eight games, the jury remains out on what kind of impact, if any, either player has made against the run. Rogers has been credited with 14 tackles (nine solo) and Franklin 11 (eight solo).
“When the boss (is) not happy, I’m not happy,” Rogers said of his team’s performance against the run, leaving one to wonder if the “boss” is Saints coach Sean Payton or defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. “So, I’m going to echo whatever he says.”
Williams is far from throwing his new veteran tackles under the bus, saying “they’re playing as hard as they can play.”
“Both of those guys are aging a little bit; not aging, but up in years,” Williams said Friday. “The first half of the season, we’ve not had to play them a ton of snaps. We’re getting 16 to 25, 16 to 20.
“We try to take the reps off, and hopefully, this last half of the season. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.”
Williams, too, said the number of rushing yards his defense has yielded recently doesn’t necessarily paint a true picture.
For example, on several plays of third-and-20 yards or more in Sunday’s 31-21 upset loss at St. Louis, he was content to have the Rams run the ball rather than give up a long pass in order to get his defense off the field.
“You can’t give them any more plays to run off the clock,” Williams said. “That was good situation football. Did I like those (rushing) yards? It made me puke. (But) we did what we had to do.”
Payton sidestepped a reporter’s question when asked about the play of Rogers and Franklin in relation to the team’s recent performance against the run with an eye on upcoming games against the Bucs on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the Atlanta Falcons.
“We’re playing two good teams that run the football,” Payton said. “That’s one of the areas that we’ll pay close attention to and one of the areas we feel will be very important as we hit this stretch of division games.”
Rogers said the Saints defense isn’t as bad against the run as the league rankings suggest. They rank 24th in rushing defense, yielding an average of 124.1 yards per game and are 32nd in yards per attempt (5.5).
By comparison, the Saints ranked 16th last year against the run (112.3 yards per game) and were 17th in yards per attempt (4.3).
“It’s just big plays; we’ve got to eliminate the big plays,’’ Rogers said. “You can play a solid game except for three or four plays and (the day) turns out bad.
“It’s like a blind study; you don’t see all the results. And when a guy has a 100-yard day, you think we had a bad day.”
Graham cracked the 100-yard barrier against the Saints in the Buccaneers’ 26-20 victory against the Saints on Oct. 16 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
He’s out for the season after suffering a torn Achilles’ tendon in Week 7 and will be replaced Sunday by starter LeGarrette Blount, who’s missed the past two games - including the one with the Saints - with a knee injury.
Many fantasy football experts are touting Blount as a must-start this week.
The 6-foot, 247-pound Blount possesses a combination of size and speed that presents a problem for defenses and had been the foundation of the Bucs’ running game before his injury.
Ideally, the Saints would like to keep Blount and the Buccaneers’ running game in check Sunday and force quarterback Josh Freeman to the air.
“We have the second half of the season and eight more games so we can turn it around and hopefully expect to finish in the top of the league,” Franklin said. “Expectations are high as a team, you know, as a defensive unit and the defensive line.
“It’s not like teams have been just lining up and whipping our butt. It’s just the mental breakdowns where some guy might miss a tackle in the gap and they squeeze out. It’s not like they’re just busting big gains here and there. We just have to do a better job corralling and everybody playing together the team defense.”
Three Saints - running back Mark Ingram (heel), middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma (knee) and Rogers (illness) - didn’t practice Friday. Ingram was ruled out of Sunday’s game by Payton, while Vilma is questionable and Rogers probable. Payton said Vilma has not had a setback with a lingering knee problem and will be worked out before the game to determine if he can go. Former Saints safety Sammy Knight, who will be inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame on Saturday night, will appear at the Hall’s museum before Sunday’s game from 10-11:15 a.m. Located at Gate B on the Plaza level of the Superdome, the museum is open three hours before and for 45 minutes after all home games. Admission is free to ticket holders. ESPN’s Rachel Nichols will have a feature on Saints quarterback Drew Brees and his affinity for the U.S. military on the network’s “Sunday NFL Countdown” show which begins at 9 a.m.