Saints running the ball as much as ever in Brees-Payton era

METAIRIE, La. -- Alvin Kamara said he and Mark Ingram talk all the time about how much fun it is to watch opposing defenses when the New Orleans Saints are sending in their various personnel groups.

“I’m just looking out like, ‘Man, they don’t even know what’s coming,’” Kamara said. “They’re trying to switch the personnel and this and that. Like, ‘Man, they don’t even know.’”

The Saints have that luxury because Ingram and Kamara are both versatile enough to be great weapons in the run game and the passing game.

But the Saints (6-2) have also kept defenses off-balance by being more balanced than ever before in the coach Sean Payton-quarterback Drew Brees era. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the 2017 Saints have called the highest percentage of run plays (43.4 percent) since their Super Bowl season of 2009 (44 percent).

That isn’t just because they’ve been protecting leads late in games. This is the most they have called run plays during the first halves of games in the Payton-Brees era (42.7 percent).

“It’s game by game. But we felt we would be improved rushing the football this year,” Payton said. “And certainly we made a concerted effort, and it was a point of emphasis. And we gotta continue to do that.”

When asked if the increased run percentage was by design heading into the season or a result of Ingram and Kamara playing so well, Brees said, “I think it’s a combination of a lot of things.”

“I think you gotta be committed to it. You gotta be [competitive] in games. Then you gotta be efficient with it. The offensive line has to be doing a great job, and they have,” Brees said. “So all of those things would equate to maybe the number of runs that we’re calling.

“But when you’re able to get a lead in games and you’re able to run the ball effectively, why wouldn’t you just keep calling a bunch of runs?”

Payton is hardly a subscriber to the “You have to run to win” theory or whatever old-school axioms you might throw out. On Wednesday, he once again mocked the idea that running 30 times in a game guarantees a victory by saying it’s usually the reverse: You get to 30 runs in a game only if you’re winning it.

But Payton is obviously smart enough to know that you’re a better team when you can run the ball effectively. The Saints have been in a lot of situations during their six-game win streak in which running the ball was their best game plan. Those include when they have faced offenses that couldn’t keep pace (Miami, Green Bay without Aaron Rodgers, Chicago, Tampa Bay) or when they wanted to avoid turnovers against an opportunistic defense (Chicago) or when they were facing weather and field elements (Miami, Green Bay) or when they were simply up big (Miami, Detroit, Tampa Bay).

We will almost certainly see more of the same Sunday at Buffalo, where the Saints could be facing weather and field elements and the most opportunistic defense in the NFL this season (a league-high 2.125 takeaways per game) and an offense that shouldn’t be able to keep pace if the Saints are efficient.

The last time the Saints played at Buffalo in 2009, they had more rushing yards (222) than passing yards (156) as running back Pierre Thomas fought through an illness to run for 126 yards and two touchdowns in the second half of a 27-7 victory.

The Saints went eight years before they again had more rushing yards than passing yards in a game Brees played. But they did it in Week 6 this season against Detroit, when they finished with 193 net rushing yards and 186 net passing yards. The Saints have had three games this season with more rushes than pass attempts: versus Detroit, versus Chicago and versus Tampa Bay.

“The goal is always to be as balanced as possible. But at the end of the day, you want run-game efficiency and pass-game efficiency,” said Brees, who explained that doing either one well is more important than the volume.

Brees is averaging 277 passing yards per game -- his lowest total since 2007 -- even though his completion percentage of 71.6 is a career high. Meanwhile, Ingram is on pace for a career-high 1,082 rushing yards, and Kamara is on pace for 622. The two running backs are on pace for a combined 2,770 total yards from scrimmage.

Ingram has made no secret about how much he loves it when the Saints are committed to the run, given that he is a “volume runner” like most running backs, who like to feel out and wear down opposing defenses.

Kamara, however, admitted that he doesn’t mind it one bit when the Saints air it out once in a while.

“It’s fun to have, like, Mike T. [Thomas] and Ted Ginn and Brandon Coleman and guys taking big chunks,” Kamara said. “Like, if Ted Ginn goes over the top for 70 ... and gets tackled on the 3-yard line, and then I just gotta run 3 yards, I’m good. I got a touchdown.”