Brees pleased by diversity of Saints' attack

by Brett Martel, AP sports

As Drew Brees examined the box score from New Orleans’ latest victory, he was struck by how equitably the Saints distributed the ball among players at various skill positions.

For a quarterback trying to lead his team through a late-season playoff push, it was a re-assuring sign that defenses — starting with Atlanta’s on Sunday — will have a hard time anticipating what New Orleans is about to throw at them.

“We feel good about it. It was interesting coming off this last game, just looking at the stat book,” Brees said, noting that four players tied for a team-high five receptions, while another had four. “It just goes to show you we’ve got a lot of guys that we spread the ball around to.”

Relatively good health and the emergence of younger players have combined to give the Saints a wider range of options for moving the ball than they’ve had for much of the season.

The timing is fortuitous. Despite being 6-8, the Saints will win the NFC South Division and host a playoff game if they win their final two games against Atlanta and Tampa Bay. They could even seal up the division this weekend with a victory combined with a Carolina loss to Cleveland.

“I like to think that we’re mixing it up quite a bit now to the point where we’re trying not to allow defenses to key on us,” Brees said.

The Saints now rank second in the NFL in total offense, averaging 422.6 yards. The passing game ranks third (301.8 yards per game) and the running game ninth (120.8 yards per game).

During a 31-15 victory in Chicago on Monday night, tight end Jimmy Graham; receivers Marques Colston and Kenny Stills; and running back Pierre Thomas each had five receptions for between 65 and 87 yards apiece. Third-year receiver Nick Toon, who didn’t have a single catch until the 11th game of the season, caught four passes for 43 yards.

Second year tight end Josh Hill, who still covers kicks and punts, and leads the Saints in special teams tackles, caught two touchdown passes and now has five this season, second only to Graham’s nine.

Falcons coach Mike Smith said the Saints possess “one of the top offenses in all of football,” and that the unit is “getting healthy at the right time.”

“I was very impressed with the performance of (New Orleans) on Monday night offensively,” Smith said.

The Falcons won’t have to concern themselves with first-round draft pick Brandin Cooks, who caught seven passes for 77 yards and a touchdown against Atlanta in Week 1 and was among the Saints’ top receivers before breaking his hand against Cincinnati on Nov. 16. But other players have combined to compensate for Cooks’ absence.

Stills has averaged about 88 yards per game during his past four games. Toon is gradually becoming more of a factor. Colston is not having his best season but has been solid, with 771 yards and four TDs receiving.

The Saints’ top three tight ends are healthy and have combined for 16 touchdowns. New Orleans top three running backs, all of whom have missed between three and six games at various points in the season, are now healthy as well.

Power runner Khiry Robinson last Monday finally touched the ball for the first time since breaking his forearm in the sixth game of the season, getting three carries and even catching two passes.

Ingram, despite missing three games early this season, is 131 yards away from his first 1,000-yard rushing campaign and ran for a 15-yard score against the Bears.

Ingram said Saints coaches are adept at “getting lots of different personnel on the field in different situations,” giving defenses “a lot of different things to prepare for.”

Brees, meanwhile, was pleased to see the Saints getting Ingram, Thomas and Robinson all involved in the same a game for the first time in nearly two months.

“Each guy brings a different skill set to the table, but I’m confident at all times with any of those guys in there,” Brees said.

Notes: Coach Sean Payton gave the Saints extra rest on Wednesday. The club was still required to submit an “estimated” injury report, which stated that left tackle Terron Armstead (neck), defensive tackle Akiem Hicks (ankle) and strong safety Jamarca Sanford (hamstring) would have been held out of practice. ... New Orleans has added a kicker, Dustin Hopkins, to its practice squad.