Saints ground game thriving at right time

by Walter Pierce

Coach Sean Payton's confidence in the rushing attack was never more obvious than when he called eight runs on New Orleans' 10-play game-winning drive that chewed up the last 4:54 on the clock.

Running back Mark Ingram takes a handoff from quarterback Drew Brees versus the Eagles.

METAIRIE, La. (AP) - When Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman started studying video for this Saturday's rematch with the Saints in the NFC playoffs, he noticed something different about New Orleans' offense.

"They are running the ball extremely well and that is different from the game we played against them previously," Sherman said, alluding to the Seahawks' 34-7 demolition of the Saints on Dec. 2. "They are a confident bunch."

The Saints, whose offense has been defined by Drew Brees' prolific passing the past eight years, rushed for 185 yards in an opening-round playoff victory at Philadelphia last weekend.

Coach Sean Payton's confidence in the ground game was never more obvious than when he called eight runs on New Orleans' 10-play game-winning drive that chewed up the last 4:54 on the clock. The last seven plays consisted of six meaningful runs, followed by Brees' keeper to the middle to set up Shayne Graham's 32-yard field goal as time expired.

Mark Ingram, who has largely struggled to live up to the expectations that came with being a Heisman Trophy winner and first round draft choice, led the running game in the absence of Pierre Thomas - the Saints' leading rusher this season but sidelined with a chest injury. Ingram rushed 18 times for 97 yards and a touchdown, averaging 5.4 yards per carry.

"He's been running real well," Payton said. "I liked his ball security the other night. Those aren't always easy yards. I am pleased with how he is playing and I think he's had a handful of games now toward the latter part of the season where he's been exceptional."

Indeed, though Ingram's 386 total yards rushing during the regular season did nothing to distinguish him, he overcame early season injuries and appeared to get stronger as the season wore on, finishing with a respectable average of 4.9 yards per carry for the season.

"I've always been confident in myself. I know what I can do. I'm confident in my abilities. It's just having the opportunity to get those touches and show what I could do and it was great to do it in a playoff game on the road," Ingram said. "I just wanted to take complete advantage of the opportunity and it felt good to be able to show what I could do and show my worth to my teammates - and all the hard work that I've been putting in, for it to pay off."

In addition to Ingram, the Saints have been getting run production from pleasant surprise Khiry Robinson, a rookie who made the team as a free agent. He added 45 yards on eight carries in Philadelphia, an average of 5.6 yards. And while Darren Sproles often plays larger roles in the return game and short passing game, he averaged 7.3 yards on four carries against the Eagles.

With Thomas unable to practice again so far this week, the Saints are confident that the trio of Ingram, Robinson and Sproles can carry a productive running game in Seattle.

"Even going into the Philly game we felt really confident that those guys are all good running backs," right tackle Zach Strief said. "They all kind of bring something different. That's the design of having this running back by committee. We have guys that can do different things. We have guys that we can plug in and play. ... There are games where some of those guys don't hardly get any carries. That's just a game-plan situation."

Payton, never one to even hint at a game plan, sidestepped questions about whether the running game might be featured again this week.

"A lot of it is depending on the game situation," Payton said.

Seattle, which finished the regular season No. 1 in total defense, ranked seventh against the run and first against the pass. Those rankings, combined with a forecast of rain in Seattle this weekend, only seemed to raise the prospects for Saints running backs to see action.

Fullback Jed Collins said last week's performance demonstrated the potential the Saints saw in their running game earlier this season, though they weren't always able to show it.

"We believe we should have been able to be that kind of team all season. We have some pretty extraordinary running backs. The tough part is we have a pretty extraordinary quarterback as well," Collins said. "The message has been sent to our team: We have to be able to run the ball, especially in these conditions, to win."

Notes: Thomas was the only player to miss all of Wednesday's practice. ... DE Akiem Hicks (ankle) practiced on a limited basis, as did RG Jahri Evans (ankle). ... CB Keenan Lewis, who left last weekend's playoff game to be tested for a concussion, practiced fully, but was still listed on the injury report with head and neck injuries. The Saints reported that LT Terron Armstead has knee soreness, but he also practiced fully.