As prolific as the New Orleans Saints' passing game has been since the arrival of Drew Brees – to the tune of a league-best 308.5 yards per game in that 12-year span – the team has never had trouble integrating running backs into its attack. In fact, the Saints of the Brees-Sean Payton era have commonly found good use for several backs at the same time, with such prolific pairings as Reggie Bush-Deuce McCallister, Bush-Pierre Thomas and Thomas-Darren Sproles. The key, of course, is that at least one of the two backs, if not both, were significant weapons as pass-catchers.
Those days are back with the duo of veteran Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara. In this case, the Saints are getting both backs heavily involved in the aerial attack but still committing to the ground game more than ever. That makes this year's New Orleans offense something of a different animal than in recent years, with Brees putting up recognizable Brees-ian numbers – 70.6% completion rate, 101.7 passer rating – via a new approach. More than ever, the Saints are getting the ball into their backs' hands and letting them chew up yards.
A look at the Saints' projected starters, according to the team's website.
"They're doing a real good job of getting the ball to the running backs, especially in the passing game," said Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith. "Both of the running backs are very adept at catching the ball out of the backfield. I think they've got a very impressive screen game and then they're committing to the run. They've had a number of times where they've added an extra lineman to help bolster their running attack."
Kamara has been the ninth-most targeted running back in the NFL in the passing game this year, with Ingram close behind at number 13. They rank second and third on the team in that category and in receptions, with Kamara producing a 31-257 line and Ingram adding 30 grabs for 190 yards. The Saints are the only team in the NFL with two running backs who each have at least 30 receptions. And they've shown a lot of variety in who is on the field and how they've thrown it to Kamara and Ingram, not infrequently having them in at the same time.
"I think they've done a really good job of keeping people off balance," said Smith. "That's one of the things, when you play Sean in his offense, is they're not an up-tempo offense in terms of no-huddling, but the changing of the personnel groupings from the sideline is about as fast as you're going to get in this league. It's going to be critical that we are able to match because he has shown more personnel groupings than any team that we have faced. There were 13 different personnel groupings that we identified in our breakdown."
The numbers for Brees are a little bit down in a couple areas, such as his yards per game (from 325.5 last year to 278.7 this year) and his touchdown percentage (5.5 to 4.4.) but the Saints are still averaging 27.2 points per game and they're using their backs to hang onto the ball longer. New Orleans' average time of possession is 31:24 per game, up from 30:57 last year and ranked sixth in the league.
"It's a little bit different," said Smith of the Saints' approach. "I think it's a little more [of an] underneath, controlled passing game. They've done a very good job of protecting him. I think they're second in the league in terms of sacks per pass attempt, so they've done a nice job protecting the quarterback and he is getting it out of his hands very quickly."
As Smith noted, one of the things the Saints' offense has done well and frequently is throw the screen pass. Buccaneer defenders will be alert to that play and ready to crash to that part of the field when Brees swings it out to his backs.
Pictures from the Buccaneers' practice on Wednesday.
"Just tackle," said linebacker Kwon Alexander of the key to stopping a good screen game. "Run and tackle and have fun. That's what we're going to do and that's why we're going to stop them."
As cornerback Ryan Smith put it, it's a simple game of, "see ball, get ball." Of course the whole point of a screen pass is to set it up so there are blockers ready to keep every nearby defender off the ball, creating a lane for the pass-catcher. Defeating that requires reading the play quickly and getting as many defenders in the area as possible, as quickly as possible.
"They're good players, so hats off to them, but it all starts with your eyes," said linebacker Kendell Beckwith. "You've got to know what you're doing, line up and see your keys and play what you see. They do a good job with the screen, so it will be a challenge for us. Everybody's got to flow to the ball and get the guy down. It depends on what defense we're in. That plays a part."
In the ground game, Ingram has led the way with 464 yards but Kamara has come on lately, going from about four carries per game in the first month to nine per game in the last three weeks. He has added 243 yards on the ground and has a robust 5.8 yards per carry. Together, the two backs have scored six rushing touchdowns. Before the Buccaneers worry about covering Ingram and Kamara on the edges and downfield, they've got to make sure they keep them bottled up in the running game. An inability to do that last December in New Orleans was one of the main reasons the Bucs lost a must-have game, 31-24.
"Drew Brees is obviously one of the best to ever play the position, but New Orleans is definitely running the ball more," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "They've got the two real good backs. If you don't go in there to stop the run, they're going to keep running it at you. In the game where they beat us at their place last year, they ran it at us hard and we didn't do a good enough job stopping it."