BRETT MARTEL,AP Sports Writer
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Lost in all the gaudy, record-breaking numbers Drew Brees puts up in the Saints’ passing game is the fact that New Orleans’ running game isn’t half bad.
In fact, the Saints wound up ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing, an eyebrow-raising statistic even for Brees himself.
“Typically, I’d say when you look at an offense, it would probably be hard to be top 10 passing and rushing because there are only so many plays in a game and so you’re running it more you’re throwing it more,” Brees said. “It’s great that we’ve been able to sustain the efficiency in both and create for the other, especially when you look at the overall yardage, both passing and rushing. It’s pretty unique.”
While the Saints led the NFL in passing with 467 yards per game, they also averaged 133 yards on the ground, which was better than 26 other teams, despite the fact that the Saints attempted a pass on 61 percent of their plays (662 pass attempts and 441 rushes out of 1,093 total regular-season plays).
New Orleans won’t be able to hand the ball to rookie running back Mark Ingram, who will miss the playoffs because of his toe injury, but the Saints still have ample depth at the position with Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory all suiting up Saturday night for the playoff opener against the Detroit Lions.
“We’ve got a great group of guys with different skills,” Thomas said. “You hit ’em with a three-headed combination.
“When we’re out there and going against a defense it’s hard for them to really read and feel each and every one of us out because we have different, unique styles of running the ball,” Thomas continued. “What I love about our rotation is we’re always keeping fresh legs.”
The result is a ground game that gives the Saints’ offense balance as needed, even if there aren’t any running backs on the roster boasting the kind of individual stats that can generate a buzz in this age of fantasy football.
“You have to get over 100 yards (a game) for people to really notice or recognize the things you’re really doing,” Ivory said after practice Wednesday, adding that those who don’t watch every Saints game “can’t actually see the great plays that we make with the running game.”
Sproles led the Saints in rushing with what at first glance might look like a solid but unspectacular 603 yards. Divide that by his 82 carries, however, and it comes out to 6.9 yards per carry. One of his touchdowns this season came on a 36-yard run.
Thomas rushed 110 times for 562 yards, or 5.1 yards per carry, and scored five touchdowns. Of the three seasons in which Thomas was mostly healthy and a regular in the New Orleans’ running back rotation, 2011 was his worst in terms of total yards. Still, he could not argue with the Saints’ running-by-committee approach, given the results.
“It works for our offense and it works great,” Thomas said. “So I’m not complaining, and as long we’re winning and do good things out there, hey, let’s keep doing it.”
Ivory, who started the season on the physically unable to perform list, finished with only 374, but averaged 4.7 yards per carry and scored a 35-yard touchdown last Sunday against Carolina. When Ingram was healthy, the former Heisman winner rushed for 474 yards (3.9 yards per carry).
“The importance in this season was to find that balance offensively and the ability to control games at times,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Short yardage and goal line is something that can be affected by a better running game, but I also think it helps with our play action pass. It’s just one more aspect to our offense that can help us be proficient.”
Although Payton’s offenses have led the NFL in four of his six seasons as head coach, the Saints haven’t always been able to run the ball well. Last season, they ranked 28th in the league, in large part because they were beat up. They also ranked 28th in 2007, the one season the Saints had a losing record in the Payton era.
When they won the Super Bowl in 2009 — like this season — they led the league in passing and ranked sixth in rushing.
Offensive guard Carl Nicks, who picked Brees up after the quarterback set an all-time single-season yards passing record (which now stands at 5,476) in Week 16, said that although New Orleans’ aerial attack made headlines, the running game was a big focus in the offensive meeting rooms at Saints headquarters.
“It is emphasized,” Nicks said. “Every week, we want to establish the running game because if we can rush for over 150 yards, it’s going to make Drew’s life a lot easier.”
And lately, Brees’ life on the field has looked as easy as it gets.
Notes: WR Lance Moore (left hamstring), TE John Gilmore (toe) and LB Jonathan Casillas (right knee) did not practice. LB Jon Vilma (left knee) was limited. … Starting FS Malcolm Jenkins, who was rested Sunday against Carolina with a neck injury, practiced fully.
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