The New Orleans Saints first alerted the NFL that they would be capable of fielding a top-10 rushing attack this season when they played in Atlanta in the season opener.
The Saints ran for an impressive 139 yards, and they got three touchdowns on the ground from Mark Ingram (two) and Khiry Robinson as they lost 37-34 in overtime.
While the Saints (6-8) are hoping the final score is different in New Orleans when they face the Falcons (5-9) again Sunday, they will seek similar production from a running game that was ranked ninth before the 16th week of the season began.
But the Saints are fully expecting adjustments from an Atlanta rushing defense that’s stouter than it was early this year.
“They’re really playing the run well,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “It’s going to be important for us in our personnel packages (to be) able to establish the running game, but I think it’s a little bit different around than it was the first week.”
Said Ingram, the Saints’ leader in carries (199), rushing yards (869) and touchdown runs (seven): “If you have success one way, they try to slow it down. We just have to ... find other ways to attack them and give them different looks — not what they’ve been seeing.”
Part of the reason the Falcons defense was dead last in the NFL after Week 15 is that it gave up more than 100 net rushing yards six times in its first seven games. In one of those outings, the Falcons surrendered a season-high 241 net rushing yards.
Naturally, permitting that kind of production on the ground makes a team vulnerable in the air, and Atlanta (20th against the run) is the worst in the NFL defending the pass.
But the story has changed a little for the Falcons lately. They have held opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards in four of their past seven contests. In Weeks 13 and 15, Atlanta allowed a paltry 35 and 45 rushing yards.
The Falcons won at home against Arizona (11-3) in Week 13. They lost at home against Pittsburgh (9-5) in Week 15, but the performance still caught the eyes of the Saints, said Robinson, who’s second on the team in carries (67) and rushing yards (340) while being tied for No. 2 in TD runs (two).
That’s because the Falcons managed to limit Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell — second in the NFL with 1,278 rushing yards — to 47 rushing yards.
Nonetheless, Robinson said the Saints took heart in knowing Bell punched in a pair of ground scores in a 27-20 win for Pittsburgh.
Given that the Saints could clinch a division title and a playoff berth if they beat Atlanta and Carolina (5-8-1) loses to Cleveland (7-7) on Sunday, Robinson wouldn’t mind if the Falcons kept New Orleans’ raw rushing yards number down but faltered on defending running plays near their goal-line.
“If 2-yard touchdowns help us win,” he said, “I’m with it. I’m with it.”
They almost did in Week 1. Ingram’s TDs were both from 3 yards, and Robinson’s was from 2.
The key word in the preceding paragraph, however, is almost. That’s one word the Saints would like to change and Atlanta would prefer stays the same when Sunday is over.