The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will bring the NFL's number-one ranked rush defense into the Superdome on Sunday, to face a New Orleans Saints squad that, like usual, is putting up nearly unmatched numbers in the passing game. One might expect the Saints to see that wall, shrug their shoulders and simply spend all afternoon throwing over it.
Not so, says New Orleans running back Pierre Thomas. Thomas clearly respects the Bucs' run defense, but he doesn't fear it, and he is more than willing to pound his way directly into – and, he hopes through – that wall.
"We're going to be prepared for them," said the sixth-year back. "We're not going to be scared to run the ball, and we know we can slow them down so they won't put pressure on Drew Brees in the pocket. We're going to be ready. We're stressing that a whole lot in this week's practice, about their front line and how good they are, and how tough they are, and strong."
Thomas is the Saints' leading rusher, which sounds a little less impressive when one adds that New Orleans is ranked 26th in the NFL on the ground and Thomas has just 444 yards. However, he is averaging 4.7 yards per carry and just two weeks ago had a strong 84-yard outing in Atlanta. Thomas has never been part of a really traditional rushing attack in New Orleans and he has personally ranged everywhere from 252 to 793 yards in a season. But he has been part of a very good rushing attack, such as the one that finished seventh in the league in the Saints' 2009 Super Bowl season.
Pierre thinks that New Orleans' current backfield, which alternately makes use of four different backs, is rounding back into that sort of form. And the numbers back him up.
Through the first seven games of the season, New Orleans averaged 72.3 yards per game on the ground. Over the last six, however, it is running at a 123.5-yards-per-game clip, including 142 last Sunday night against the Giants.
"I believe the running game is doing a lot better at this point in the season," said Pierre. "We're running the ball very well, we're passing it along to each one of our backs, changing up the schemes a little bit. As long as we can be balanced out there, we'll be a tough outfit. As long as we believe in the run game and focus on running the ball, we'll be a good offense. I believe that our run game has stepped up a whole lot since the beginning of the season. We struggled in the beginning, running the ball. A lot of defenses were stopping us and we were only gaining two or three yards on just about every carry. But now we're really focused on the run game scheme and it's starting to open up a lot towards the end of the season."
Still, he does recognize that keeping that streak going against the Buccaneers, who are allowing just 78.2 yards per game on the ground this season, will be a serious challenge. In the first meeting between the two teams, the Saints almost hit that average right on, gaining 81 yards on the ground. Thomas led the Saints with 13 carries that day but picked up just 32 yards (and a touchdown).
Last year, Thomas needed just eight carries to get 66 yards against Tampa Bay's defense in a November game in the Superdome. Of course, that defense also ranked dead last in the NFL against the run. Thomas believes he knows the main reason for the Bucs' stunning turnaround in that category in 2012.
"I think it's attitude," he said. "I think they said, 'Hey, most teams are going to run on us and we're not going to allow that.' And they've been showing it, and the stats show it. Their defense is really crushing the ground game…and you like a challenge. Any opposing team will like a challenge. We see that and we want to say, 'Okay, we will be that team to go against that number-one defense at stopping the rushing game.' We want to see where we are at with our ground game, so we're going to challenge that.
"But you definitely see the attitude with these guys – 'No team is going to run on us. We're going to be that number-one team.' These guys are flying around. Their front-four guys are so strong and competitive that we're going to have our hands full trying to move these guys out of the way to make holes."