NEW ORLEANS – After getting pushed around by St. Louis in Week 8, the New Orleans Saints did the only logical thing. They brought out the bats.
Yeah, the baseball bats.
For those who haven’t followed the Saints in recent years, the bats are significant. For those who have, you know the bats mean the Saints are swinging for something besides the fences.
“The whole philosophy behind a bat game is it’s going to be a physical, physical game,’’ New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees said. “You’re not going to look at the scoreboard. All you’re going to do is think about winning the physical battle, and if you can outhit the opponent, you win the game. We save these for special occasions. Typically, we don’t do it for a division opponent. You can say they’re all physical and important and all those things. But, maybe in light of where we are in the season and what happened a few weeks ago at their place, (coach Sean Payton) felt like it was appropriate.’’
A week after an embarrassing loss to the previously-winless Rams and about a month after losing to the Buccaneers in Tampa, the Saints (6-3) turned to the heavy lumber to hold onto sole possession of first place in the NFC South. In a tradition that’s best remembered from when Reggie Bush ran onto the field carrying a bat before a playoff victory against Arizona in the 2009 Super Bowl championship season, Payton had red bats with Tampa Bay’s nickname distributed to all his players before the game.
The implication is simple.
To those who like to call the Saints a “finesse team,’’ they were far from it against the Buccaneers. After allowing Brees to get sacked six times and hit another nine times against the Rams, the Saints protected their quarterback perfectly. Brees wasn’t sacked -- and barely was touched -- and it wasn’t simply because the Saints gave tackles Jermon Bushrod and Zach Strief extra blocking help.
The bats were swinging from every direction on offense.
“I thought we found a great balance,’’ Brees said.
Against St. Louis, there was no balance. There was no running game and that allowed the Rams to focus on Brees. Against the Buccaneers (4-4), the balance was pretty close to perfect. Brees completed 27 of 36 passes for 258 yards with two touchdowns.
But he had tremendous help from the ground game. The Saints finished with 195 yards, including a rare 20-yard scamper by Brees. But the rest of it came from the combination of Chris Ivory, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas.
Sproles, who is the offense’s jack-of-all-trades, finished with 42 yards on four carries and also caught five passes for 57 yards and a touchdown. He also had a touchdown run near the end of the game that was called back by a penalty. Thomas rushed for 66 yards and a touchdown on eight carries. Ivory, who returned last week after sitting out the early portion of the season with an injury, led the Saints with 67 yards on 15 carries. The Saints didn’t even seem to miss injured rookie running back Mark Ingram.
That bat rack seemed more than full as Brees completed passes to eight different receivers, including six for 78 yards to tight end Jimmy Graham.
“When you look at our productivity when we’re running well, it’s through the roof,’’ Brees said.
The Saints looked a whole lot different than they did against the Rams.
“Last week, that’s not the team we are,’’ Brees said.
“We’re past that,’’ Payton said. “We’re not scratching any heads.’’
That’s partly because the Saints also came out swinging on defense. They held the Buccaneers to 84 rushing yards on 20 carries. Tampa Bay’s LeGarrette Blount got off to a hot start, but he seemed to cool off after the Saints stopped him on a fourth-and-one at the New Orleans 29-yard line with 5:07 remaining in the first quarter.
Payton made it a point to say this was the first time the Saints ever have had a “bat game’’ against a division opponent. That might have helped reverse last week’s mess and put the Saints on a good path as they head to Atlanta for next Sunday’s game against the 5-3 Falcons.
So why don’t the Saints just bring out the bats for every game?
“I don’t think there’s enough room for all those bats,’’ wide receiver Lance Moore said.
Moore was speaking in the literal sense about space in the locker room. But it’s fair to suggest he might also have a point in the figurative sense. Maybe the Saints don’t need to physically hand out 53 baseball bats every week. That would make Payton’s point about playing physically get old in a hurry.
Instead, just take some of the lessons learned between the embarrassment at St. Louis and the joyful victory against Tampa Bay and carry them all the time. The Saints aren’t the type of team that must be dramatically more physical than their opponent every week. They just need to be physical enough in their running game and with their defense to prevent everything from falling on Brees’ shoulders.
“It makes things so much easier when you have a balanced attack,’’ Moore said.
When the Saints have that balance, they can make any game look like batting practice.