Rabalais: Running game advances will be critical to offensive health

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Saints fullback Erik Lorig works in drills during training camp Monday morning in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. The Saints hope that Lorig, whether through carries or blocking, can help improve their running game.
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Saints fullback Erik Lorig works in drills during training camp Monday morning in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. The Saints hope that Lorig, whether through carries or blocking, can help improve their running game.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle — when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”

— Christopher McDougall

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Up and down a flinty hillside path at his team’s training camp facility Monday, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton ran in what looked like a haphazard relay with several members of his coaching staff.

Up the hill near the team’s headquarters, they ran before spinning around to jog back down again to the lower practice field, where they hoisted kettlebells and did some hybrid pushups/jumping jacks.

It was inspiring to those in the media covering Saints training camp, at least until we climbed the three steps into the media work trailer to see if there were any doughnuts left over from breakfast.

The scene — the running of the coaches, not the scramble for the doughnuts — symbolized a major theme for Saints training camp 2014:

Running is good for you. Doughnuts are not.

Too often last season the Saints running game looked like it was putting up a doughnut in the net rushing category. Yes, every game there was positive yardage, but too often there wasn’t enough of it.

New Orleans was state of the art when it came to passing, leading the NFC and ranking second in the NFL with 4,918 net yards through the air (Drew Brees actually threw for over 5,000 yards, but sacks are deducted from that total).

On the ground, New Orleans was stuck in antiquated “3 yards and a cloud of dust” territory,” ranked 25th in the league averaging both 92.1 yards per game and 3.8 yards per carry.

So the Saints have come here to West Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains — where at 2,000 feet, too much running can make you wish your chest would explode — to rededicate themselves to the glory of the ground game.

Sean Payton meets Walter Payton. At altitude.

No, the Saints aren’t going to abandon the pass. Haven’t seen Brees running any read option plays here and don’t expect to.

But a good passing game, much less a great one, is grounded in the bedrock of a good ground assault. That the Saints were great at passing last season in spite of an anemic ability to run the ball says a lot about their airborne prowess — and how effective it could be with a the implied threat of the run.

“Defensively, when you can take away that element from an offense, that’s pretty significant,” Payton said of the run. “We’ve played games offensively when we’ve felt that area has been taken away. That really limits you then. That’s an area where you really want to improve.

“There are times in the second half when you want to have a little better control of the game. It starts with run offense and run defense.”

To Payton’s point, the Saints did run the ball better the second half of the season than the first.

First eight games of 2013, the Saints averaged a paltry 79.8 yards per game.

Last eight games of 2013, the Saints averaged 104.4 yards per game rushing. Extrapolated over the entire season, that would have been the 21st-best rushing average. Still not great, but an improvement.

In the playoffs, though, the Saints were much, much improved. Though skewed by a small sample size, New Orleans ranked fourth among the 12 playoff teams, averaging a whopping 146.5 yards per game rushing.

Conversely, the team that lead the NFL in rushing during the regular season, the Philadelphia Eagles, eked out just 22 yards rushing in their one playoff game.

That was a loss. To the Saints.

The Saints put money where their mindset is this offseason by signing free-agent fullback Erik Lorig to a four-year contract.

The former Tampa Bay Buccaneer is a wrecking ball with a beard at 6-foot-4, 250 pounds. His résumé does not include a single NFL carry in his four seasons (he will catch some passes) but does include a reputation for grading the road ahead of a pair of 1,000-yard rushers: LeGarrette Blount and Doug Martin.

“He’s got some size and mass that helps him, and he’s also got some flexibility where he can align,” Payton said. “And he can also play some special teams.”

Lorig’s main job will be making the Saints’ running game more special.

“We can be as good a running team as we’ve ever been,” tackle Zach Strief said. “Our mindset coming into this camp is that we have to be a lot more efficient … more physical.

“The great offenses we’ve had have been able to run. We know it’s important, and we’re off to a great start.”

The Saints have been the gazelle. They want to see what it’s like to be the lion for a change.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.