Addition by subtraction: why the Saints boast the most dynamic backfield in the NFL

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The Saints’ dominant rushing attack has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the season in a year full of shocks. Rookie sensation Alvin Kamara and veteran Mark Ingram are in the midst of a historical season; only once in NFL history have two running backs on the same team amassed over 1,400 scrimmage yards each in the same season (per @MarcSessler). Both Kamara and Ingram are on pace to achieve this feat.

It is easy to forget that this backfield was originally intended to be a three-headed monster. Adrian Peterson was one of the most exciting talent acquisitions of the off-season, and while there was some level of uncertainty as to his precise role within the offense, it was widely expected that he would feature prominently on early downs.

I had very high hopes for Peterson as someone who had grown up watching him do his thing in Minnesota, and I thought that he had more left in the tank than most were giving him credit for. However, I was disappointed with his decision to take his talents to New Orleans as I felt that his skillset was too similar to Ingram’s. Both are big, physical backs who are limited in the passing game, and I didn’t see how the two could co-exist.

At the beginning of the season, the Saints’ ground game did not take off in the way envisaged. While the team averaged a relatively respectable 94 rushing yards per game in their first four contests, they eclipsed 100 rushing yards just once in that stretch. Sean Payton hoped he had created a three-headed beast, but in reality, this was a backfield absent of any rhyme or rhythm. Neither Ingram, Kamara nor Peterson were given the opportunity to emerge as the dominant presence in the backfield, while the three-way workload split meant that there were simply too many cooks in the kitchen. Peterson averaged just 3.0 yards per carry in those first 4 games, and it became immediately apparent that he was falling out of favour with his head coach.

Trading Peterson to Arizona may well be the best decision that the Saints have made this season. Don’t get me wrong, Adrian Peterson is probably the most exciting player I have ever had the privilege of watching, but he just didn’t fit in New Orleans. Eliminating Peterson from the crowded backfield during their Week 5 bye brought a sense of clarity to the running game; Ingram would take on the bulk of the early down work, while Kamara would provide an explosive change of pace on third downs. In fact, Kamara’s role has evolved as the season has progressed, and I love the fact that he features prominently on first and second down as well.

Kamara has far exceeded my expectations for him in his rookie season. Coming out of Tennessee, I loved his speed, quick footwork and smoothness as a runner. However, I was concerned about his size and his ability to run consistently between the tackles. At this early stage of his career, he has proven me wrong. While outside runs and pass-catching have been the two defining traits of his impressive rookie campaign so far, he has been productive on inside runs despite my worries.

It’s not all about the young rookie though. Ingram has been one of the most underrated backs in the league for a long time, and he is shining in this new-look backfield. Since the Peterson trade, he is averaging 4.92 yards per carry and has found the endzone seven times in five games. His consistency as a runner has allowed Kamara to flourish in his role; both backs keep each other fresh and keep the opposing defense on their toes.

Drew Brees has had to carry this franchise for years, but now it looks like he finally has a running game to rely on. Not only have Ingram and Kamara taken the pressure off of him and the passing game, but the rushing attack is in fact the team’s new offensive identity. This, in turn, keeps the defense off the field and has allowed them to have a very successful campaign to date.

The Saints are for real, and this ground game is legit. While it’s strange that getting rid of a future Hall of Famer is what it took to take this backfield to the next level, it has worked out and that’s all that matters.

 

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