This season the New Orleans Saints are looking to strike a better offensive balance between their aerial assault and their rushing attack.
Head coach Sean Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, Jr would like to return to statistics like the Saints posted during their 2009 Super Bowl season when the established run game amassed 2,106 rushing yards. Last season the ground battle accounted for 1,473 yards.
"I know one thing we talked about this camp is focusing more on the run game," running back Pierre Thomas said. "We want to get back to where we were in the past of having a nice balanced offense. We are putting more time in on the running game than I have ever seen before this year. We are trying to show that we can run the ball this year."
Of course that’s easier said than done, considering the key departure of dual threat and matchup nightmare Darren Sproles, who’s now with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Certainly, youngsters Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet have a chance to make a bigger statement this season, but the player the Saints really need to see enjoy a breakout year is 2011 first-round draft pick Mark Ingram from the University of Alabama. If the weight of the team’s Super Bowl dream isn’t incentive enough, Ingram is also entering the last year of his deal in New Orleans.
"I’m coming into a contract year, so of course," Ingram said when asked about how critical this season is for him. "Every year is a big year, but there is a special emphasis on this year. It’s important to come out, have a great training camp, and get off to a fast start. I just want to come out here, get better every day, stay healthy, and have a big year."
Last season, the front office in New Orleans declined to pick up Ingram’s fifth-year option and its $5 million price tag.
"We have high expectations for Mark and we’ve seen a lot of good things for him in the past, and he’ll be a core player for us this season," General Manager Mickey Loomis said. "I discussed the reason why we didn’t take the option last year previously, and it just has to do with market. I expect Mark to do well and he’ll receive a nice contract, hopefully from us, but if not, from some team in the NFL."
Some might describe that as pressure, but not Ingram, who says he’s his own harshest critic.
"I wouldn’t say it’s pressure," Ingram said. "I’m just going to go out there and do what I do: play football, do what I’ve been doing my whole life, be the best I can be, and everything else will handle itself."
Thomas agrees that Ingram is tough on himself. The veteran leader is often the one who pulls Ingram aside and calms him down when he doesn’t accomplish what he wants to out of a play.
"You can see it in his face," Thomas said. "Mark is passionate about his game and how he performs. That is what you want to see in a player. That is what you want to see. You see Drew (Brees) do it a lot. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Drew if he threw a bad pass or an interception, he gets mad at himself. That is what you should do. You have to tell Mark, ‘Hey man, focus: you messed up, let’s move on to the next play. Get better, show everybody that you forgot about that play you messed up on and show everybody that you can improve and go forward from a mistake.’"
Guard Ben Grubbs believes Ingram is up to the task at hand. He’s predicting a big season of production from Ingram, provided he and the rest of the offensive line do their part.
"Absolutely. Mark is my guy" Grubbs said. "He’s a hard worker, and we just have to make sure that we’re all on the same page. The running game takes all eleven guys. A lot of people have pointed the finger at the offensive line. A lot of people point fingers at Mark, but it’s a team effort. Every man needs to do their job, so I’m expecting big things out of our running game."
That universal responsibility is a theme echoed up and down the O Line. In order to get to Arizona and improve upon a glaring weakness last season, a more established run game bolstered by a more dominant line is a crucial goal for this Black and Gold offense. It’s a group responsibility, not one that rests on Ingram’s shoulders alone, according to veteran tackle Zach Strief.
"We would like to be one of the most efficient rushing attacks in the NFL," Strief said. "We want five yards a carry. If you look back at the years that we have been successful, I think that is really where the importance is, can you consistently and efficiently pick up yardage? I think we can be as good as a running team as we have ever been."