NEW ORLEANS — If there was anything more maligned than the Saints defense in the first half of the season, it was the running game.

Last in the NFL through seven games and the reason why Drew Brees’ passing yards were first in the league — there was no other option.

Not anymore.

For the second straight time Sunday, the Saints committed to a balanced offense.

And the result was not just the yards — 148 — but the number of attempts, 29, just three less than the number of passes by Brees in the 31-27 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

“It’s confidence; that’s all it is,” running back Pierre Thomas said. “We just need to call it and stick with it no matter what.”

Thomas, who has been as much of a feature back as the Saints’ committee approach to the position allows, took pretty much a backseat on Sunday — just five carries for 10 yards.

But he also was the head cheerleader for teammates Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory.

And he had plenty to cheer about.

Ingram, so relegated to cameo roles in the early games that he was in danger of being labeled a first-round bust, carried 16 times, one shy of his career high, for 67 yards. And Ivory, who was inactive for five of the first seven games and didn’t on the field in two in which he did suit up, ripped off a crowd-pleasing 56-yard touchdown in which he broke two tackles to get loose and then stiff-armed Atlanta’s Dunta Robinson 15 yards from the goal line to polish things off.

“I told those boys, we’ve got to start this game off by making some noise,” Thomas said. “If we rally up first and start to hit these guys in the mouth by running the ball hard, our guys are going to see that ,and they’re going to appreciate that.

“There’s no egos out there. We love sharing the ball because it keeps us fresh.”

Actually, Ingram said, he considers himself a rhythm runner, much as he was at Alabama.

Early in the second quarter, Ingram got a rare opportunity for a Saints back — back-to-back carries — for 6 and 8 yards, picking up first down on his own in the team’s go-ahead touchdown drive.

“The more you touches you get, the more you get a feel for how the line is blocking and how the defense is defending certain runs,” Ingram said. “I like getting into a groove with the sweat on my legs keeping me warmed up.

“It’s definitely better than going in and then coming back out for a while.”

But even thought that was his only back-to-back opportunity, Ingram had no complaints, only compliments on Sunday.

“The coaches are doing a great job of scheming and dialing up the right runs for us,” he said. “The offensive line is doing a great job getting a push, and the tight ends and the fullbacks are blocking well, too.

“Then we’re just running hard.”

Ivory was not available after the game Sunday, but right tackle Jermon Bushrod, said the play was a thing of beauty from start to finish.

“Everybody on the right side of the line did a good job of holding on to their blocks,” he said. “I think I caught a little bit of that stiff-arm at the end.

“Putting confidence in guys like Chris and Mark is what it’s all about.”

Ivory’s TD came on second-and-10, which nine times out of 10 for the Saints, is a likely a passing down.

“We hadn’t been doing a good enough job of executing in the running game, and when we don’t do that to the best of our abilities starting out, coaches might get a little hesitant to call for runs on second-and-5 and situations like that,” Bushrod said. “You never want to pass the ball every single time.

“I think coming out and establishing the run today helped make us good enough to get the victory.”

Sunday’s 148 yards came after a 25 carry, 140-yard day last Monday against the Eagles which got the Saints out of 32nd place in the league in running, albeit only to 30th.

And even now, the Saints aren’t likely to be higher than 28th after this week’s games.

But, to Brees, things are on the right track.

“That’s great balance,” he said. “That’s what you’re looking for, because that’s when you know you’re really rolling as an offense.

“When you’re have that balance, you’re being successful, you’re sustaining drives and opening up some big-time opportunities in the passing game. We did that today.”