If you go back and look at the film of New Orleans playing Houston in Saturday’s preseason game, it quickly becomes apparent the Saints don’t have a featured running back. They have three.
Rookie Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles all got work with the first-team offense. That’s not some sort of competition or preseason experiment. The Saints are likely to use all three in a similar rotation during the regular season.
“I think it’s a great trio,’’ quarterback Drew Brees said. “When you look at all their strengths and their abilities with the diverse group we have, it’s hard when you give a defense that 1-2-3 punch because all of them can do so many good things and you’re able to rotate them and keep them fresh, and that’s only going to help us and our offense and how complex we’re going to be and what we’re going to be with formations and personnel groups. It’s really becomes a great weapon for us.’’
Although the trade of Reggie Bush made headlines, I’ll make a case that the Saints are better off at running back now than at any time since the 2006 season. That’s the last real productive year the Saints had from Deuce McAllister before age and injuries caught up to the veteran. That also was Bush’s rookie year, and he might have had his best season as he was used in tandem with McAllister.
Since then, the Saints have used a committee of running backs that has included the likes of Bush, Thomas, Mike Bell and Chris Ivory. They’ve won a lot of games, but the play of the running backs has been decent, not great.
With Ingram, Thomas and Sproles, things should change for the better. Ingram might be the most complete back the Saints have had since McAllister. At 5-foot-9, he’s built low to the ground, but he’s powerful. He’s also shown good speed and was able to catch the ball out of the backfield in college. That skill could be utilized even more in New Orleans’ offense.
But the Saints don’t need Ingram to do everything. Thomas is similar in a lot of ways -- he can run inside and outside and catch passes. Thomas was limited to six games last season, but was the closest thing the Saints had to a consistent running threat in 2009 when he averaged 5.4 yards per carry.
Ingram and Thomas are likely to split most of the carries out of the backfield, but the Saints didn’t go all out in recruiting the free-agent Sproles to have him come in and be a decoration. He’s going to be part of the backfield rotation with Ingram and Thomas.
Sproles will take on many of the roles Bush had. He’ll be used as a change-of-pace back, often going in motion and being used as a receiver. Sproles has the same kind of dynamic speed Bush had, but he might be better in some ways. Bush had trouble staying healthy throughout his time in New Orleans.
In his past three seasons in San Diego, Sproles did not miss a game. He also handled return duties.
Tampa Bay (LeGarrette Blount), Atlanta (Michael Turner) and Carolina (DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart) might have better individual running backs than the Saints. But put Ingram, Thomas and Sproles together and the Saints have a triumvirate of running backs that could make their offense more complete than it’s been since the days when McAllister still was going strong.