The New Orleans Saints are almost unrecognizable compared to the past few years. From 2014 to 2016 the team never won more than seven games in a season, and it was usually left up to quarterback Drew Brees to carry the team to victory. Not anymore. The Saints have been one of the most dominant teams in the NFL this year: winners of eight straight — including an improbable win over the Washington Redskins on Sunday — New Orleans is 11.5 points per game better than an average team after adjusting its margin of victory for strength of schedule, making this squad the best team in franchise history. The 2009 championship team, by comparison, had an adjusted scoring margin of 10.8 points per game.
And it’s mostly thanks to a historically good running game that focuses on a pair of running backs on pace to become one of the best tandems we have seen since 2002, the year the league expanded to 32 teams.
Veteran Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara have combined to produce 1,925 yards from scrimmage (rushing and receiving) in 2017 and rank fourth and eighth, respectively, for scrimmage yards among running backs this season. Over the past 17 years, only the 2007 Minnesota Vikings had a better 1-2 punch (1,940 yards from scrimmage) during the first 10 games of a season — and the vast majority of that yardage was coming from Adrian Peterson (1,301).
The Saints tandem would likely look even better if Peterson hadn’t eaten into the snap count before being traded to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 5. With him on the roster, Kamara was playing less than 30 percent of the snaps, but once Peterson left Kamara has rewarded the Saints with an average of 112.7 yards from scrimmage per game, which would equate to 1,802 yards over a 16-game season. Ingram has averaged 120.7 yards per scrimmage, almost double his production (73.8) with Peterson on the roster.
Here’s why this duo is so difficult to defend.
Ingram is used on early downs, often running up the middle behind center Max Unger and right guard Larry Warford, where he is averaging 5.9 yards per carry, 3.2 of those yards coming after contact. Ingram is also always moving forward, with both the power to run over defenders and the agility to make them miss — overall, only LeGarrette Blount has more yards per carry after contact this season, according to the game charters at Pro Football Focus.
Then, once the defense is fatigued from dealing with Ingram, Saints Coach Sean Payton uses Kamara as a change-of-pace back whose speed and elusiveness makes him difficult to contain on the edge, where he is averaging 8.1 yards per carry. Kamara is also leading all NFL running backs in yards per route run (2.4), further illustrating why the Saints running backs are a nightmare to contain.
Payton has so much confidence in his rushing attack he called a rushing play 24 times in a row in Week 10 against the Buffalo Bills and was rewarded with a 298-yard, six-touchdown performance, with Ingram and Kamara each topping 100 yards rushing. Against Washington on Sunday the two combined for 271 total yards and two touchdowns.
A strong run game also alleviates pressure on the quarterback, helping Brees have one of his most efficient seasons to date. The 17-year veteran leads the league in completion rate 71.7 percent and is only being pressured on 21.7 percent of his drop backs, his lowest rate since 2006, the first year data is available from Pro Football Focus. No other passer has a clean pocket as often this season, and that’s great for Brees, whose passer rating drops from 115.9 to 53.1 under pressure this season.
The end result is an offense that is scoring 30.2 points per game — the third-highest in the league this season and 12.6 more per game than expected after factoring in down, distance and field position, second only to the New England Patriots — giving the Saints a realistic chance at returning to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2009.