If you go by record or reputation, you can look at Saturday’s playoff game and say the New Orleans Saints should be able to win with one arm tied behind their back.
That might be exactly what the Saints have to do.
They’re heading into Seattle’s Qwest Field without running backs Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas. Both were placed on injured reserve this week. Ivory has a foot injury that will require surgery. Thomas has an ankle injury that kept him out much of the season and finally sidelined him after a brief, but promising, late-season comeback.
On the surface, Ivory and Thomas aren’t superstars, but they were important cogs in an offense that’s known more for the passing game than the running game. Thomas was the closest thing to a complete running back the Saints had during last season’s Super Bowl run. With Thomas and Reggie Bush injured early in the season, Ivory, an undrafted rookie free agent, stepped up and was the team’s leading rusher during the regular season.
Quarterback Drew Brees might be good enough to put the team on his back and simply use the passing game to get by the 7-9 Seahawks, who are in the playoffs only because they were slightly less mediocre than the rest of the teams in the NFC West.
As good as Brees is, though, that’s a lot to ask. Qwest Field is known as one of the league’s loudest outdoor venues, and weather frequently can be a factor. Scratch the running game out of New Orleans’ offense, and Seattle’s defense simply will load up against the pass.
Even when Bush and Thomas were hurt early in the year, New Orleans coach Sean Payton made it a point not to abandon the running game completely. Even Brees needs help and balance, and the Saints will have to turn to some unusual suspects to provide at least some threat of a running game.
“We’ve gone through this before and really it’s not uncommon,’’ Payton said. “It’s more of the norm and making sure that through preparation that the players that maybe haven’t played more significant roles at one point or another are now ready to play those roles. More than anything else, I think it’s the preparation and the teaching and the coaching that goes on. The players work week-to-week regardless of what their status might be that week, and it’s understanding that all of these guys are on hand and ready to contribute.”
What the Saints have on hand is a unique collection of running backs, all with different strengths and weaknesses. They have Bush, who could be more important than ever, Julius Jones, DeShawn Wynn and Joique Bell. Wynn and Bell were signed this week to fill the roster spots of Thomas and Ivory. Wynn had a brief stint with the Saints this season, and Bell was signed off Philadelphia’s practice squad.
At least one of them will be active Saturday, but it probably will be only as a third running back. That leaves Bush and Jones as New Orleans’ two best options in the running game and, as the only two backs with much experience, they’ll also be needed in the passing game.
“The protections are the big issue,’’ Payton said.
In recent weeks, opponents have been trying to beat the Saints by blitzing Brees frequently. That strategy worked well for Baltimore and Tampa Bay, and you can bet the Seahawks have studied film of those games closely.
Neither is an exceptionally big back and neither is known as a blocker. Jones, who was signed by New Orleans this year after three mostly disappointing seasons in Seattle, hasn’t done much with the Saints. Ivory vaulted over Jones on the depth chart. In a backup role, Jones has carried 48 times for 193 yards and caught 17 passes for 59 yards. He has not scored a touchdown.
The Saints might use Jones as a blocker, but it’s not likely they’ll suddenly put the entire running game in his hands. That’s why Bush could be the wild card in this game.
The No. 2 overall pick in the 2006 draft, Bush never has been the type of running back to handle 20 or 25 carries a game. Instead, he’s been used in tandem, first with Deuce McAllister, then with Thomas and most recently with Ivory. Bush has been part running back, part wide receiver and part return man throughout his career.
But this could be the one game where the Saints use Bush almost exclusively as a running back because they really don’t have many other choices.
“We just have to package him the right way and look at the snaps and what we’re trying to do when we put him in that position,’’ Payton said.
Bush missed eight games earlier this season with a broken leg, and the Saints have gradually worked him back into the rotation. But it might be time to take the limitations off Bush, and there were some encouraging signs in the regular-season finale against Tampa Bay. Bush had season highs with 70 rushing yards on nine carries.
“I thought he played well last week,’’ Payton said. “He’s healthy and is doing well. Coming back off of the injury, he’s fully recovered now and I thought the carries and the touches he had last week were encouraging.”
Although Bush finished the regular season with just 36 carries for 150 yards, there is a precedent for his stepping up in the postseason. That’s what happened last season as the Saints won the Super Bowl. The Saints were cautious with Bush, who was dealing with a knee injury most of the regular season.
But he was healthy for the postseason, and the Saints unleashed him. Bush averaged 6.9 yards per carry in the postseason and was at his best in a divisional round victory against Arizona in which he ran for 84 yards, including a 46-yard touchdown run. Bush also returned a punt 83 yards for a touchdown.
Still, the Saints were pairing Bush with a healthy Thomas throughout the postseason, and Bush never got more than seven carries in a game.
The Saints aren’t going to suddenly hand the ball to Bush 25 times on Saturday, but it’s pretty safe to assume he’ll get more than seven carries. Jones probably will get more carries than usual, and Wynn and/or Bell could end up handling a few carries.
The Saints have used Bush basically as a hybrid throughout his career. On Saturday, they might have to ask him to be just a running back.