St. Pierre keeps the Saints alive (for now).

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By Clay A. Smith

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brees victory

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On a Sunday afternoon when the stars appeared to have come out early — Heralded Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, MVP candidate Drew Brees, rookie sensation Matt Ryan, and explosive running back Michael Turner — who would have guessed it would be an undrafted kid out of Illinois who would eclipse them all and literally run away with the game?

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The Saints came into Sunday’s contest against Atlanta with a 6-6 record and desperately needed a win to keep their fading playoff hopes alive. But while Bush ripped off eight yards a carry including a career-long 43-yard run, it was Pierre Thomas who carried the Saints to their seventh win of the season. Thomas had a game-high 102 yards rushing, two touchdowns, and an eighty-eight yard kickoff return to set up the go-ahead score.

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“We just finished giving him a game ball,” Coach Sean Payton said. “He did so much in that game – both in the running game and obviously in the return game. The kick return there is a play that ends up really winning the game for you.”

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Sunday’s 29-25 win was a good example of what the Saints can accomplish with a balanced attack. After a less than stellar start to the season the Saints quickly abandoned an inept running game that had failed to convert on key third and fourth downs or garner the respect of opposing defensive coordinators.

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However, in their rematch with Atlanta it was clear on the Saints opening drive that their game plan was to establish Thomas and the running game after a horrible showing against Tampa Bay one week earlier.

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“The run sets up the pass. That’s kind of football 101,” said Bush, who had no rushing yards against the Buccaneers.

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The Saints ran the ball with Thomas on the first three plays of the game and went three and out but continued to run the ball. In fact, Brees – who finished the game with 230 yards through the air – didn't attempt his first pass until six and a half minutes into the first quarter, when he connected with Bush for a five yard touchdown pass to put the Saints up 7–0.

The Saints came into the game with a reputation as a pass-happy offense and Payton used the threat of the pass to set up the run. After all, they are  the number one passing attack in the league while just twenty eighth in rushing. Against Atlanta they used a combination draws and delays to freeze the Falcons’ secondary. When Atlanta was forced to switch to their cover two zone, the Saints were were able to exploit it by hitting Tight end Jeremy Shockey (five catches for  64 yards) over the middle of the field.

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“I thought the draws were going to be effective and they were,” Payton said and went on to call this the most complete game of their season.

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Despite the play of Bush, when the Saints needed tough yards at the end of the game, it was Thomas' number that was called. Thomas ran the ball five consecutive times for twenty-three yards on the Saints final drive enabling New Orleans to run out the clock.

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Ironically it looked like the Falcons were the team in need of balance against the 20th ranked defense in the league. Turner, who is third in the league in rushing, was held to just sixty one yards by a Saints defense that despite key injuries in the secondary have come alive late in the season.

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The Saints were unable slow down Ryan and White. White, who is second in the league in receiving, torched the Saints for 164 yards with 153 coming before the fourth quarter. Ryan manipulated the pocket with relative ease against pass rush that, except for Bobby McCray, was a non-factor.

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Statistically, Ryan played well posting  315 yards passing but had the games only turnover early with an interception to Jason David that negated a sixty four yard Atlanta drive.

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With three games left, the first of which will be a Thursday night homecoming for the sophomore back against the Chicago Bears. Thomas and the Saints find themselves in a precarious situation in which several teams must lose in order for them to make the playoffs.

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"All you can do is win one game at a time," Brees said.

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