Saints out to improve run, run defense, in 2011

The New Orleans Saints look like they’re ready to run.

They also hope their defense is better equipped to stop the

run.

For New Orleans, improving in those areas while maintaining its

already exceptional passing attack and pass defense could be the

key to returning to the Super Bowl for the second time in three

seasons.

”We certainly have an expectation level of wanting to win

championships,” coach Sean Payton said. ”Recognizing the

challenges that go into that, how do we get better? How do we run

the ball better?”

In attempting to answer the latter question, the Saints sent

popular running back Reggie Bush, the first draft choice of the

Payton era, to Miami in a trade, but appear to have gotten stronger

at the position overall.

Pierre Thomas, who led the Saints in rushing in 2008 and 2009,

has returned under a new, four-year contract. New Orleans added

Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram in the first round of last

spring’s draft, then brought in speedy, versatile scat back Darren

Sproles in free agency.

Chris Ivory, who rushed for 716 yards and five touchdowns as a

rookie last season, is wrapping up rehabilitation on a broken left

foot and sports hernia surgery, and is expected to be ready around

the time of New Orleans’ regular season opener at Green Bay on

Sept. 8.

”That’s the position you want to have a lot of depth at,”

Payton said, referring to injuries that sidelined Bush and Thomas

for much of 2010, as well as Ivory for the playoffs. ”It’s a hard

position. It’s one that has a lot of contact and wear and tear with

our game today. We will try to pay attention to our depth there and

make sure we are keeping these guys healthy. It’s just one aspect

of what we think we can do better to move forward.”

Stopping the run is another.

Under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams last season, the

Saints ranked fourth in the NFL in yards allowed per game. That was

largely because of their fourth-ranked pass defense. Their run

defense ranked 16th and endured its lowest moment when Marshawn

Lynch broke off a tackle-breaking, 67-yard scoring run that salted

away Seattle’s upset over New Orleans in the first-round of last

season’s playoffs.

The Saints responded by giving Sedrick Ellis more help on the

interior defensive line in the form of free agents Shaun Rogers

(6-foot-4, 350 pounds) and Aubrayo Franklin (6-1, 317).

New Orleans also added depth at defensive end by using their top

draft choice on former California star Cameron Jordan (6-4,

287).

”We’re going to look different getting off the bus,” Williams

said. ”You’ve got bigger people. We have to get those bigger

people to play with the same tenacity that our smaller people have

played with in the past, but we sure look different.”

Rogers sought out a chance to play for the Saints, a franchise

whose long-held reputation for bumbling ineptitude has been left in

the past since Payton arrived, taking the Saints to three playoff

appearances – including two NFC title games and a Super Bowl – in

his first five seasons.

”I’m just excited to be a part of a franchise with that kind of

tradition,” Rogers said, referring to the Saints’ more recent

history. ”I hopefully will be able to bring something to the table

and contribute to a situation like that again.”

Meanwhile, the Saints hope Jordan and newly acquired veteran

defensive end Turk McBride will improve their pass rush.

Starting ends Will Smith and Alex Brown combined for only 7 1/2

sacks last season, and Smith could miss the first four regular

season games of 2011 because of his positive 2008 test for a banned

diuretic. His suspension has been tied up on appeal and in the

courts, but is expected to be served this season.

There will be less pressure on the defense, of course, if the

Saints’ keep living up to their reputation as one of the premier

offenses in the NFL.

Quarterback Drew Brees has all of his top receivers back, and

his offensive line appears solid, even with two new starters. The

Saints brought in veteran center Olin Kreutz after three-year

starter Jonathan Goodwin left in free agency, then promoted veteran

Zach Strief to starting right tackle after releasing five-year

starter Jon Stinchcomb, who was struggling to overcome leg

injuries.

Brees is particularly eager to make use of Sproles, a running or

receiving threat whom the quarterback helped recruit while the two

worked out together in San Diego during parts of the past

offseason.

”He is going to fit in great with this team, in this locker

room and in this offensive system,” Brees said. ”As I look at our

offense … we will plug him in the exact same way we would Reggie,

and even be able to do more things.”