Saints rushing: 2 steps forward, 1 step back

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints’ run game, which remains a work in progress midway through the 2013 season, will face its stiffest test yet on Sunday. The New York Jets defense ranks first in the NFL against the run, allowing just 77.9 yards per game.

The Saints, who rank 25th at 85.3 yards per game, have been showing signs recently that they’re up for the challenge, with two of their best efforts overall in the past two games.

But they continue to take two steps forward and one step back.

Negative runs have been a consistent problem for the Saints all season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, they have lost yardage on 25 runs this year (not counting quarterback kneel-downs).

That rate of 3.6 per game is the third highest in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information (behind two teams – San Francisco and Seattle – that run the ball a lot more).

The Saints are on pace for 57 negative runs this year. From 2009-12, they averaged 34 negative runs per year.

“I think you’re seeing more 6, 7, 8-yard runs. More consistency. The problem is when there’s three negative-1s or a negative-3,” Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. “It destroys the whole stat line and it stalls the offense. Those are the plays that have to be eliminated.

“Negative runs happen, but I think they’re happening at too high of a rate at this point.”

The Saints had one of their better efforts overall last Sunday against the Buffalo Bills – especially running back Pierre Thomas, who gained a season-high 65 yards on 14 carries (an average of 4.6). Thomas had gains of 13 and 12 yards and a total of seven gains of five yards or more.

But the Saints went backward twice in the first quarter, including a 2-yard loss by Khiry Robinson that never had a chance on third-and-1. Robinson, who typically plays in more predictable rushing situations, gained just nine yards on seven carries after he had run for 53 yards on seven carries against the New England Patriots in Week 6.

A backward run also made a huge impact during that Week 6 loss to the Patriots. When the Saints were trying to run out the clock late in the fourth quarter, they ran for four yards on a first-and-10 play – then lost a yard on second-and-6 with Thomas carrying the ball.

There hasn't been any one obvious problem for the Saints in those situations. The negative runs have come with different running backs, different linemen and different blocking schemes. Sometimes it's play design, sometimes execution. Whatever the case, the Saints know it has to be better.

“We have to give coach the confidence that we’re not going to have a negative play,” Strief said. “That a running play is not going to put us in a bad position, to where we have more confidence calling those plays in some more situations.”

Saints coach Sean Payton said he would have actually preferred to run the ball more in the first half against Buffalo when he looked back on the game.

The Saints ran the ball nine times in the first half – showing that variety between hits and misses: 6, 8, 1, minus-2, minus-1, 2, 12, 0, 6.

“We would have liked more attempts at it, and some of those we didn’t get in the first half,” Payton said. “But overall we’re making progress there.”