Saints’ success in 2014 starts with the running game

The Saints/Falcons rivalry is one of the fiercest in the NFL. While Atlanta holds a 47-43 edge in the all-time series, the Saints have won nine of the past 11 games. In the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era, the good guys have won 13 of 16 against their divisional arch-rival. In a nutshell, Sean Payton owns the Falcons, not Arthur Blank.

Since 2006, the Saints have only opened up once against the Falcons — last season. The Saints won 24-17 when rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro broke up a Matt Ryan pass in the end zone in the final seconds.

But this is a new season and anything can happen, especially when it comes to the Saints and Falcons. Both teams have lofty expectations this year. The Falcons were on the cusp of becoming one of the NFL’s elite teams two years ago when they made it to the NFC Championship, but then blew a 17-point lead and lost to the San Francisco 49ers, 28-24. Atlanta finished with a 13-3 record and followed that up with a 4-12 record during an injury-riddled 2013 campaign. Entering this critical year for coach Mike Smith, Atlanta has a lot of burning questions.

Can quarterback Matt Ryan prove he is the Falcons’ franchise player and elevate the team to the next level?

Can Ryan’s reshuffled offensive line protect him enough to get the ball to his talented wide receivers?

Will oft-injured running back Steven Jackson hold up long enough to make a difference?

Can a young secondary grow up in a hurry?

The Saints don’t have nearly as many question marks, but they do have a few important points of emphasis. The team struggled with consistency in 2013. The running game was sluggish until it sparked to life near the end of the season and the passing game had trouble getting in sync against the more physical teams on the schedule. After getting off to a blazing hot 5-0 start, the Saints went 6-5 down the stretch, dropping games to the Patriots, Jets, Seahawks, Rams and Panthers. With the additions of speedy rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks on offense and ball-hawking safety Jairus Byrd on defense, the Saints hope to make defending them and moving the ball against them that much more difficult. Add a seemingly rejuvenated Mark Ingram running the ball, a more experienced, hard-hitting Kenny Vaccaro at the other safety position and the Saints have the pieces in place to make a lot of noise in 2014.

The success of the running game is obviously a starting point. The Saints two best teams under Sean Payton — the Super Bowl-winning team in 2009 and the team that should have made it to the Super Bowl in 2011 — both had powerful running attacks. In 2009, the Saints finished with the league’s sixth-ranked running game and the NFL’s top-ranked offense. In 2011, the Saints’ running game finished sixth again and the offense was tops in the league. In 2010, 2012 and 2013, the Saints running game was 28th, 25th and 25th respectively.
When the Saints run the ball effectively, they are extremely difficult to beat.

Notice I didn’t mention #9 at all in this column. If the running game does what it should and the defense can maintain last year’s top 5 ranking, we will all be talking about Drew Brees a little less. And I’m sure he’ll be ok with that.

Saints over the Falcons in week one, 31-17.

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