METAIRIE - After leading the NFL in total offense for three of the first four seasons under head coach and de facto offensive coordinator Sean Payton, the New Orleans Saints took a few steps back in 2010.

They slid five spots to sixth in the final rankings, which wouldn’t be a huge deal for most teams. But for the Saints, who were ravaged by injuries on that side of the ball, it’s a big dropoff.

“Obviously, the most important thing is to win football games,” said offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. “You set goals for yourself, and a goal for us every year is to be the top offense in the league. If you do that, then you see how far you can go.”

Then, Carmichael gazed out at an empty practice field following Saturday’s workout and said, “And it starts right out here.”

In other words, the Saints know they must improve offensively - especially running the ball - this season if they hope to get past the first round of the playoffs.

Just think back to the Super Bowl-winning season of 2009 when the Saints ranked sixth in rushing. Then, scan the stats from last season and you have to go all the way to the bottom to find the Saints ranked 28th.

A lot of that had to do with injuries to Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory and Lynell Hamilton, who combined to miss 38 games - which contributed to them averaging just 94.9 yards a game.

But to Carmichael, and running backs coach Bret Ingalls, that’s no excuse.

“Certainly, we want to improve from where we were at in rushing the football,” Ingalls said. “I think us staying healthy will help that. We just have to hope these guys stay healthy through camp and see who’s going to be most productive for us - and move forward.”

“Regardless of who you’ve got out there, you have to put those guys in the best position possible,” Carmichael said. “Whether it’s running or throwing the ball, you do what’s best for your team. So we’re looking forward to getting everybody going.”

While the Saints will look an awful lot like they did in 2010 when they throw the ball as five-time Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees returns with a deep stable of receivers intact - a list that includes Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and Jimmy Graham - the running game will look a lot different.

Bush is now with the Miami Dolphins, and Thomas, Ivory and Hamilton hope to rebound from their injuries. And that trio will be joined by a pair of newcomers - first-round draft pick Mark Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner, and shifty former San Diego Chargers standout Darren Sproles.

“We’re excited about the personnel we’ve got right now,” Carmichael said. “Right now, they’re learning the offense and it’s going to be a process for a little while. We’re excited with what we have, especially in the backfield.”

“It’s going to be very exciting because we know what we did a couple of years ago, and now we have two new guys who are going to contribute,” said Thomas, who led the Saints in rushing in 2008 and ‘09. “Darren is a veteran and knows a lot about the game. Mark is a hard runner, which we saw when he was in college, so they both bring good things to the table.”

A strong running game will also help a passing game that also struggled at times last season and finished third in the league in yards.

Brees threw a career-high 22 interceptions, twice as many as he had a year earlier in leading the Saints to a Super Bowl win, but still had 4,620 yards passing and 33 TDs and a 90.9 passer rating.

Combine that with a new-look running game and the Saints might seem to be at a disadvantage because of the lockout this spring and summer.

But with Brees in charge of six weeks of workouts, Carmichael feels comfortable that the offense was in good hands.

“Drew had those guys in the offseason and he’s pretty special,” Carmichael said. “It sounds like he did a great job and knowing he was out there, we feel pretty good about it, too.

“He’s got such a presence about himself that when he’s talking to the team those guys are listening. They want to hear every word he’s got to say.”