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Saints' McAllister must have big role Sunday

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

COLNEY, England -- Sean Payton won't say it. Deuce McAllister won't either. So let's just cut to the chase.

More than ever -- even more than in the good old days -- the New Orleans Saints need McAllister.

Payton's a football coach and he's making sure he doesn't give away his strategy. McAllister's a smart and seasoned player and he's not going to give away what the coach won't. But just look at the facts and it's pretty obvious what's going to happen Sunday.

With their season pretty much on the line, the Saints play the San Diego Chargers at London's Wembley Stadium. There's a good chance the field will be muddy and rain and wind may be factors. That doesn't bode well for quarterback Drew Brees and an offense that's lived by the pass all season.

The Saints need to run the ball and they'll be without running back Reggie Bush, who's not really a running back. Bush is back in New Orleans recovering from knee surgery. If you've followed the Saints' strange season so far, you know that Payton talked to McAllister early
in the season and told the veteran the Saints would need him at some point.

That time is now.

At least for one day -- at least until they get through the bye, get back to playing in domes and get Bush back -- New Orleans needs McAllister, 29, to be what he was a few years ago. That's a power runner who can handle 20 or 25 carries, or at least something close to that.

"Whatever I have to do to help this team win, that's what I'm going to have to do,'' McAllister said after Thursday's practice at Arsenal Football Club's practice facility. (UPDATE: McAllister made news Friday, reportedly testing positive under the NFL's steroid policy as a result of taking water pills to lose weight.)

That's as much as you're going to get out of McAllister, no matter how many different ways you ask him if he'll be back in the starting lineup or if he'd like more carries than he's been getting this season.

McAllister's always been a humble team player, even though he's one of the best players in franchise history.

He's stayed quiet and polite through a confusing season in which he's had only 50 carries for 208 yards. He didn't get a single carry in Week 1 or Week 3 as he began a comeback from his second major knee injury since 2005.

New Orleans fans screamed for him to get more playing time, but he didn't. With McAllister standing on the sidelines early in the season, Payton talked to the veteran and told him not to get his spirits down. McAllister, the franchise's all-time leading rusher, seemed to be back in the team's plans when he got 20 carries and produced 73 yards in a Week 4 victory against San Francisco.

But he's only averaged about nine carries in the three games since. Maybe it was all part of Payton's plan. There's no way the coach could know Bush would go down in the middle of the Carolina game and be unavailable for at least a few weeks.

But Payton knew all along the game in England, where the weather can be nasty this time of year, was coming. Plus, Payton knew the Saints, at some point, were going to have to grind out some yards and control the clock. Bush, an outside runner and threat as a receiver, isn't the kind of back who can do that.

Maybe Payton was playing it slowly with McAllister's knee and targeting big things for him in this game -- and the second half of the season -- all along.

"I think they were definitely being cautious," McAllister said. "It's always a long season and you never know what's going to happen. At some point you're going to have to deal with some circumstances and that's what we're trying to overcome."

The Saints have plenty to overcome. After one of the league's busiest offseasons (they overhauled their defense and traded for tight end Jeremy Shockey), they're 3-4 and, arguably, one of the league's most disappointing teams. As brilliant as Brees and the passing game have been, the Saints may need a whole different game plan if the field isn't
a fast track.

Reserves Pierre Thomas and Aaron Stecker also could play roles in the running game, but they're just role players. What the Saints need is the 232-pound McAllister running like he did in 2006, when he ran for 1,057 yards, and like he did in 2002 through 2004, when he recorded three straight 1,000-yard seasons.

"Deuce is a man,'' linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. "When he runs the ball, you see him run over linebackers and defensive linemen. From minicamp to training camp to now, you see him running better and running harder. If you didn't know he had the surgery, you wouldn't know now that he had it.''

McAllister and the Saints have been patient for half a season. They can't afford to stay that way any longer. Lose this game and they'll be 3-5 and the season will be pretty much lost. Win it and they'll be .500 heading into the bye and they'll still be in the NFC South race.

The best chance for that happening is if the Saints run McAllister a lot Sunday. He's sat quietly and been nothing more than a role player for six games. Even if it's only for one game, the Saints have to put the ball in the hands of the man who used to be their best player and hope
he can fill that role once again.