Successful ground game key to Saints’ playoff hopes

METAIRIE — New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton knew that being physical in running the ball and defending against the run would be a big key in Sunday’s game with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After the Bucs out-rushed his team by 47 yards in an Oct. 16 meeting in Raymond James Stadium, Payton made sure his team knew the importance of the rematch at home.

So after Payton stressed it in practice all last week and in Saturday night’s team meeting, the Saints went out and pounded the Bucs with 195 rushing yards while his defense allowed just 84 yards — producing a 111-yard advantage — in their 27-16 victory in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Even though the Saints (6-3) are better known as being a pass-first team, they’re 6-0 this season when they rush for 100-plus yards.

Payton said that a strong ground game, where the running back is constantly gaining 5 or 6 yards per carry, can be demoralizing to an opponent — as it was in the win over the Bucs (4-4).

“There’s no question,” he said. “Having done this long enough, when teams are having success running the football against you and it’s second-and-2 or second-and-4, that has an effect on your team.

“When you’re the team that’s having success and are able to run the football, that’s important.”

And it will still be important heading into another big NFC South game against the Atlanta Falcons (5-3) on the road this Sunday.

“We’ve got to run the ball against that team, because they’re going to run the ball,” guard Carl Nicks said. “We’ve got to get our defense some rest and establish our tempo and open play-action pass. We’ve got to get a running game going again next week.”

Free safety Malcolm Jenkins said that while it’s easy to get away with lapses in the early part of the season, the message Payton delivered last week is that the Saints’ playoff hopes begin to get set now.

“This is the month in which you separate from being a playoff contender or not,” Jenkins said. “Teams that win in November are usually teams that make the playoffs.”

Jenkins isn’t worried about whether he and his teammates will continue playing as physically as they played against Tampa Bay, at least this week.

“I think the fact that we have a bye week helps in that we can let it loose knowing that you have some rest coming up, and then you’re back at it for some other tough games,” he said.

The Saints know they can’t afford to take a step back after the win over the Bucs.

“We don’t have that margin of error anymore,” Jenkins noted. “Earlier in the season, our goals were still in hand. Any loss in this month is crucial to what we want to do. I think guys recognize the seriousness of it.”

Payton had good news on the condition of cornerback Tracy Porter, a former Port Allen High School standout who suffered a neck injury on the second play of the game Sunday.

Payton said all tests and X-rays on Porter’s neck came back negative, and the four-year veteran was in the team’s training room getting treatment at midday Monday.

“Basically, he’s dealing with some chest and upper back soreness from the collision,” said Payton, who is expected to provide another update when the Saints return to practice Wednesday.