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The Saints Can Finally Run the Ball, and the Team is 7-2 Because of It

Drew Brees is still great, but it’s a balanced approach that’s led to the best New Orleans squad in years

New Orleans Saints v Buffalo Bills Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

The Saints have been the poster child for the NFL’s explosion in passing through the past decade: Going back to 2006, quarterback Drew Brees has led the league in pass attempts four times, touchdowns four times, completions five times, and passing yards seven times. He’s racked up an NFL-record five 5,000-yard passing seasons (all other quarterbacks in league history have combined to do that just four other times). As those stats show, Brees has often been forced to put the New Orleans offense on his back and throw the ball all over the yard to win games, but this year’s team has adopted a new, unfamiliar identity as a balanced squad that can beat you on the ground and through the air. That’s never been more apparent than it was in Sunday’s rout of the Bills, in which they scored 47 points without getting a single touchdown pass from their future Hall of Fame signal-caller.

New Orleans ran the ball 48 times (second-most of any team in a game this year) for 298 yards (6.2 yards per carry) in the 47-10 win. It was the first time they’d broken the 250-yard mark since 1986, and today the Saints reached paydirt on the ground for a franchise-record six times to become the first team since the 1957 Browns to eclipse 295 yards and six touchdowns in a single game. The pinnacle of Sunday’s dominating ground attack came near the end of the third quarter, when the Saints put together a 94-yard touchdown drive that featured 10 consecutive runs and as the finishing touch, a seven-yard scramble score by Brees. He got a little bit of help on that play from offensive lineman Terron Armstead, who sent Bills defensive end Eddie Yarbrough flying on a lead block.

That type of smash-mouth personality is new for this squad. At one point in the fourth quarter, the Saints ran the ball 24 times in a row; they were, as Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara said after the game, imposing their will on the Buffalo defense.

Ingram led the way with 21 carries for 131 yards and three touchdowns, and Kamara added 12 totes for 106 yards and a score. The team even got rookie Trey Edmunds involved, and the undrafted free agent broke off a 41-yard touchdown scamper late in the final frame. By the time the final whistle blew, the Saints had possessed the football for 41 minutes to Buffalo’s 18, picking up an astounding 20 first downs on the ground to the Bills’ two.

The heavy investments the Saints have made on the offensive line through the past few years have clearly started to pay off. The team spent a third-rounder on left tackle Armstead back in 2013, sent Jimmy Graham to the Seahawks as part of the trade that brought starting center Max Unger to town, used a 2015 first-rounder on starting left guard Andrus Peat, gave starting right guard Larry Warford a four-year, $34 million deal in the offseason, and then spent another first-rounder on right tackle Ryan Ramczyk in April. Add in the first-round pick the team used to draft Ingram back in 2011 (plus the four-year, $16 million extension they gave him in 2015) and a third-rounder this year for Kamara, and it’s clear the team has been trying to build this type of offense for some time.

Of course, the 38-year-old Brees is still capable of putting the Saints on his back if the team really needs him to, and it’s not like he’s having a bad year, with 13 touchdowns to just four picks through nine games. But in New Orleans’ seven-game win streak, which has pushed them to a 7-2 record and the lone spot at the top of the NFC South, the run game has been the team’s offensive foundation.