In their "six game season," the New Orleans Saints must lean on Drew Brees


Photo: Mark Runyon | Pro Football Schedules

Well, I was wrong. I thought the New Orleans Saints could lean on a dominant rushing attack to batter weak run defenses like that of the Cincinnati Bengals, and thus coast to a relatively easy victory. So did the Saints.

I thought the key to success in 2014 was the Saints' ability to batter opponents like Cincinnati, Chicago, Atlanta, etc into submission. That, clearly, is not the case, and the Saints have fallen to 4-6 after one of the most depressing losses of the Sean Payton era.

But there are still six games left, and in hilarious 2014 NFC South fashion that is so repetitive as to be monotonous, the Saints are still the statistical favorite to win a divisional title. 

So really — now what?

"We're playing a six-game season right now," coach Sean Payton said, and this little stretch is indeed one during which the Saints can salvage something from the wreckage of one of their most disappointing years. The best way to do that, though, is to get back to their roots.

Saints fans tend to argue for "balance" — that is, they see Sean Payton as a coach who stubbornly continues throwing the ball almost regardless of situation, to the detriment of the team.

It's unlikely that 2014 will change many minds, but facts are facts: The Saints are more balanced in 2014 than they have been in any Payton/Brees era seasons other than 2006 and 2009.

The Saints have been particularly balanced over the past month, as they've been heavily dependent on the legs of Mark Ingram, with a 56/44 pass/run split that is as close to completely balanced playcalling as a Payton team has ever been. It hasn't really helped.

Yes, the Saints ran all over Green Bay, and that certainly made them better, and yes, the Saints drained both the clock and the Panthers' will to win a week later, in Carolina, but the team's failure against Cincinnati is proof that running just for the sake of relative balance is no better than throwing on every down.

Running the ball well is important. Running it badly is not.

Drew Brees is the conduit through which the Saints' offense runs, no matter how good or bad their running game is in a given season. If the Saints can establish an effective rushing attack to help him out, then all the better; his job gets easier. If they can't do that, though, they simply have to depend on his ability to win games with his arm.

That's a scary idea during a year that has been defined almost as much by Drew Brees turnovers as it has been by the defense's catastrophes in lengthy third and fourth down situations. But we now know that, while an overly-aggressive Brees might cost his team games, playing it safe doesn't even give the Saints a chance to blow a win.

It's not in this team's nature to play conservative, dink-and-dunk football, slamming a running back into the defensive line for two yards a carry in hopes that doing so often enough will produce one or two successful big plays. That's not the Saints' identity.

Even Sean Payton noticed his team's emotionless play this past weekend; maybe that kind of flatness is what happens to radicals when they settle for a cubicle gig.

Unlike Cincinnati, the Baltimore Ravens have a great run defense. The Ravens allow a mere 3.4 yards per carry, and only about 85 yards per game. That's a full yard less per attempt than the Bengals give up, and 50 fewer yards per contest.

It's possible the Saints stick with their recent, conservative run-to-set-up-the-pass strategy against Baltimore, and that they have success doing so, but I wouldn't bet on it. To beat Baltimore, and to start their new six game season 1-0, the Saints will have to attack through the air.

They'll need, once again, some Drew Brees primetime Superdome magic.

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