Playbook: Fullback, commitment to run key to Saints success

After being cut seven times since 2008, fullback Jed Collins has found a home in New Orleans.

His individual numbers won’t stand out (with just 4 carries for 4 yards and 11 catches for 50), but Collins has been a critical part of a Saints’ run game that resembles more of the 2009 Super Bowl champion squad than a 2010 team that veered heavily toward the pass game.

When N.O. made their Super Bowl run in 2009, they had a balanced offense, running 51 percent of the time on first down. They used a fullback, primarily Heath Evans, on 73 percent of their designed run plays, averaging 4.23 yards per carry, and used one-back runs as a change-up on the other 27 percent (4.04 yards per carry). Despite their reputation as a passing team, they were sixth in the league in rushing with 2,106 yards.

In 2010, the Saints changed their philosophy and struggled. They passed 60 percent of the time on first down, more than any other team, and only used a fullback on 60 percent of their runs, at just 3.41 yards per carry. New Orleans finished 28th in rushing and were ousted in the first round of the playoffs by Seattle. They did lose Pierre Thomas for a large portion of the season, but had more than capable runners in Reggie Bush and Chris Ivory behind him.

This year, with Collins leading the way for New Orleans’ exceptional collection of RBs in Thomas, Darren Sproles, Ivory, and Mark Ingram, the Saints have gotten back to their championship ways. As they did in 2009, New Orleans finished the 2011 regular season ranked sixth in the league in rushing with 2,127 yards (which is amazingly within just 21 yards of their 2009 total). The additions of Sproles and Ingram have helped, but their fullback usage has meant just as much to their rediscovered success.

New Orleans used Collins on 73 percent of their run plays (the same exact percentage as 2009) and averaged 4.69 yards per carry. They once again used one back sets as a changeup, mostly with a dynamic Sproles out of shotgun, averaging 5.58 yards per carry. The Saints have also renewed their commitment to first down running, going to the ground on 45 percent of their first down plays (compared to 40 percent in 2010).

While Drew Brees will be a top contender for MVP, the addition and performance of Jed Collins — and the adjustments made by head coach Sean Payton to reestablish a dominant running game — should not be overlooked. New Orleans’ passing game will get most of the buzz, but this run game is what helps make the whole offense work.

“Playbook” — the ultimate football Xs and Os show – airs Friday at 9 p.m. ET (Saturday’s divisional playoff games) and 10 p.m. ET (Sunday’s divisional playoff games) on NFL Network. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.

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