Ground game proves sluggish in Saints’ opener

On the 26 times the New Orleans Saints handed the ball off to their running backs in their 23-17 win against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, they picked up just one first down and averaged fewer than 3 yards a carry.

The Saints preached a commitment to establishing a reliable running game through training camp and the preseason, but Sunday showed there’s plenty of room for improvement in that phase, despite the victory over their divisional rivals.

“We will continue to work on that element,” coach Sean Payton said Monday about the rushing attack. “We were close in some areas, and yet we still have to work on and clean up a number of things to improve it.”

That was perhaps most evident on a fourth-and-1 play for the Saints in the first quarter, one of two times New Orleans ran the ball in a situation that was not on first or second down. With the Saints trailing 7-0, running back Mark Ingram got the handoff at New Orleans’ 46 and headed right, but Falcons linebacker Akeem Dent dropped Ingram for a 1-yard loss.

That turnover on downs resulted in a 10-point lead for the Falcons when kicker Matt Bryant hit a 23-yard field goal.

The Saints ultimately overcame that deficit because quarterback Drew Brees went 26-of-35 for 357 yards and two touchdowns, and the offense turned the ball over just once.

Meanwhile, New Orleans’ defense created two takeaways; consistently pressured Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, sacking him three times; and limited running back Steven Jackson to 11 carries and 77 yards, 50 of which came on one broken play.

On Monday, Saints tackle Bryce Harris took some of the blame for his team’s failure to convert the fourth-and-1. Lined up as an eligible receiver on the right, Harris said he was late off the ball.

As Falcons outside linebacker Kroy Biermann rushed in from the left edge, Harris was only able to stretch him between 2 and 3 yards. “We want to get a 5-yard stretch on that, ... so we didn’t really give a lot of wiggle room for (Ingram) to hit,” Harris said.

By the time Ingram tried to squeeze past Biermann on the inside, Dent had closed up the small hole.

Ingram’s day from there didn’t get much better. The Falcons tackled him twice more behind the line of scrimmage, and he finished with nine carries for 11 yards.

Pierre Thomas enjoyed the most success running the ball for the Saints, rushing nine times for 43 yards. He picked up the only first down of the game for the Saints on the ground, on an 11-yard run around the left end on third-and-1 from New Orleans’ 12 with 1:33 in the third quarter. That rush got the Saints out of being deep in their own territory while nursing a 20-17 lead.

Saints running back Darren Sproles got 22 yards on eight carries but accounted for 110 yards on offense by catching six passes for 88 yards. His best reception came on a 13-yard pass from Brees, which Sproles then ran for 19 more yards to help set up a 22-yard field goal from Garrett Hartley, the final points of the game.

Asked whether it matters to the offensive line who is lining up at running back, Saints center Brian de la Puente said it made no difference to the group if it’s Ingram, Thomas or Sproles.

“We don’t change for who’s in the game,” de la Puente said. “It’s, ‘This is what we’re going to do, and you guys are good enough athletes where you can figure out where you need to hit and where the holes are going to be at.’”

“We don’t change what we’re doing. They kind of just figure out where they need to get.”

De la Puente then listed several things he and his teammates on the offensive line could fine-tune to help boost the team’s yards-per-carry average. Among them were seeking better leverage on opponents as well as a deeper understanding of the various protection schemes they run.

“We like the stress and the pressure of the run game in general,” de la Puente said. “We’re a solid group, and we’re excited about the challenge.”

Editor’s Note: This article initially stated the Saints didn’t turn the ball over. But Brees threw an interception, and the story has been corrected.