It might not have felt like there was an element missing from the Saints’ backfield during Sunday’s loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson did their best to act as receivers and turn Drew Brees’ screen passes into big gains. But that isn’t how things are supposed to be. Even when an understudy puts forth a solid performance, it’s always a little different than how the headliner would do things.
That reality might soon change. Running back C.J. Spiller, who has been sidelined since mid-August due to knee surgery, returned to practice in a limited capacity on Wednesday and could be on his way back for Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Brees says he’ll be ready to get Spiller going in the offense when he’s ready, whether it’s this week or down the road.
“I like the way he looks. I like the look in his eye. He’s a pro,” Brees said. “Even though we had minimal time in training camp, I feel like I know the player, I know the athlete, I know what he can do for us. I think as we build in nuances for him throughout the season we’ll have a chance to go work on those things and build a comfort level.”
It’s a needed element that could help this offense find the next gear.
It might not seem like it since Ingram and Robinson combined for 13 catches for 149 yards on 15 targets in the 31-19 loss to the Cardinals, but Spiller, assuming he’s fully healthy, will bring a dynamic element to this offense that was lacking. One of his primary functions is as a receiver. That’s not true for Ingram or Robinson.
To their credit those two ran a few patterns that were a little deeper on the route tree than simple screens. Spiller will excel at those things. He can go over the middle and catch passes, split out as a receiver, or run routes out of the slot -- and excel at doing all of those things.
His potential was on full display in 2012. He logged 1,703 yards from scrimmage that season and moved all about the field. That season, Spiller moved about the field, ran a variety of routes out of the backfield, and made 14 receptions either split out or from the slot. Many of those were crossing routes, hitches and comebacks.
Chan Gailey was the coach that season. Last season, when 13 of Spiller’s 22 receptions were screens, Doug Marrone was the head coach. Spiller has admitted that his role changed quite a bit once Marrone took over for Gailey.
It should change again. Coach Sean Payton has often found creative ways to scheme for his pass-catching backs. Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles were weapons in this offense as satellite backs, the kind of players teams schemed for. The same should be true for Spiller once he gets up and running.
If Spiller’s presence forces teams to account for him the way they once did for Darren Sproles, it could force teams to potentially pull a safety down to keep an eye on him. When a team is content to drop seven players back into coverage as Arizona did on half of Brees’ 48 passing attempts, someone like Spiller could make them pay or help open things up for other players.
Marques Colston said last season during a radio interview that not having Sproles on the team caused difficulties for the offense in 2014.
“When you lose a guy that has produced at that high of a level and don’t have an immediate replacement planned for him, you’re going to struggle at times when those crucial situations when you know exactly the matchup you’re going to get, the look you’re going to get and what you’re going to get out of that player,” Colston said.
Having Spiller around should help dictate some of those looks and matchups. That’s a good thing for this offense -- especially after it struggled to move the ball down the field and score in the red zone against Arizona.