METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Sean Payton's play selection has backed up the coach's offseason pledge to restore more balance between the times the Saints run or pass.
Now, as New Orleans prepares to visit Tampa Bay this Sunday, it's up to the offensive line and running backs to give Payton a reason to stick with it.
"It's going to get better," running back Pierre Thomas promised.
In last Sunday's triumph over Atlanta, New Orleans attempted 35 passes and ran the ball 29 times. The passing game accounted for 357 yards and both Saints touchdowns. The running game, by contrast, averaged only 2.7 yards per carry.
"We got some stuff we need to work on, but we had some good stuff called," running back Darren Sproles said after Wednesday's practice. "We really worked on it today, so we're kind of getting our groove back."
Last season, the Saints were quick to abandon a running game which averaged about 99 yards and ranked 25th in the league.
Payton wasn't around for last season because of his bounty suspension. Not long after his reinstatement, Payton said he wanted to re-establish more balance in the offense.
Payton doesn't necessarily see the running game as a great way to move the ball. Rather, he wants his record-setting quarterback, Drew Brees, as involved as possible in the attack, even if that means distributing the ball to running backs through short passes when downfield options are not as attractive. However, Payton does see merit in using the running game to punish defenses physically, and to control the clock, particularly with leads.
To some extent, Payton said, the running game succeeded in those areas against Atlanta, even though it only accounted for a total of 78 yards and no touchdowns.
"The final drive that led to a field goal took a lot of time off the clock," Payton said, referring to a six-minute, 12-second possession which gave the Saints a 23-17 lead with 3:12 left. "We will continue to work on that element. It needs to be better. We were close in some areas and yet we still have to work on and clean up a number of things to improve it."
Some running backs did better than others in terms of yards per carry. Thomas, who averaged 4.8 yards on nine carries, was the best of the lot. Sproles averaged 2.8 yards on eight carries and Mark Ingram 1.2 yards on nine carries.
Fans in the Superdome began grumbling when Ingram, a former Heisman Trophy candidate and 2011 first-round pick out of Alabama, was stuffed on run after run. Yet right tackle Zach Strief said New Orleans' run blocking had too many breakdowns, and that it was obvious from the still photos handed to the offense on the sideline between drives.
"There were a lot of plays with penetration that we can't give up," Strief said. "So we've got things to fix."
Strief added that Payton could have been justified in abandoning the running game, "and yet he stuck with it, and I think it did pay dividends at the end of the game," because he could sense Atlanta's defensive front tiring.
"He stuck with it and we've got to be more productive to make that an easier decision than it probably was," Strief added.
The Saints running game ranked as high as sixth in 2011, when Thomas, Sproles and Ingram were all on the team, though some members of the offensive line left after that season, most notably left guard Karl Nicks, who now plays for the Buccaneers.
Still, Brees said the Saints are committed to running the ball and that he sees no reason why New Orleans cannot have one of the better ground games in the NFL again.
"We didn't make the adjustments like we should have, like we will, so it was a good lesson learned," Brees said of last Sunday's game. "We've got the running backs to be very effective there. We've got the offensive line to be very effective there. We've got the scheme to be very effective there. We've got the receivers that block down field and give us the opportunity to have big runs. ... We have all the pieces in place to have a very effective run game."
Notes: Saints DT Brodrick Bunkley (right calf) and DE Tyrunn Walker (left knee) did not practice Wednesday. ... Glenn Foster (right ankle) tried to practice, but appeared to pull up lame in some of the first drills performed after stretching.