Read part 1 of “How the Saints can win Superbowl LII” here:
Welcome back to the second part of “How the Saints can win Superbowl LII”. Last time, we discovered our overarching goal for the regular season: get a first round bye. To do that, we found out the Saints really need to win 12 games this season. So in this article, we’ll take a look at what the Saints rushing offense must produce in order for the team to have a chance to receive a first round bye. To do this, I went back and took a look back at the last 32 teams to receive a first round bye (all the way back to the 2009 Saints), pulled the same numbers for the 2016 Saints, and compared them. We can then talk about trends and what needs to happen in 2017.
I looked at a few basic stats and a couple of advanced stats for this article. I started by looking at rushes per game, yards per game, yards per attempt, touchdowns, and fumbles. I then added a formula to look at fumbles per rush, and I used Football Outsiders’ stats for Adjusted Line Yards. These are pretty basic except for Adjusted Line Yards, so I’ll explain. Basically, adjusted line yards credits (or discredits) the offensive line with a % of each rush. The breakdown is as follows:
- Rushes that result in a loss of yards: 120% given to offensive line
- 0-4 yards: 100%
- 5-10 yards: 50%
- 11+ yards: 0%
A key factor to consider in this is that consistency is more highly valued than variability. A 5 YPC average is great, but if a rush will gain 4-6 yards every single play, that’s much more valuable than a team that will rush for 12 yards one play then -2 yards the next. Rushes that result in few yards or losses are almost always the fault of the offensive line: it’s difficult for a running back to gain yards when he’s being hit 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Hence, we see the extra % being given to the offensive line for negative plays. Also, once a rush has reached 11+ yards, the running back is past all his blockers. At this point, the offensive line has done its jobs and the rest of the yards gained are really a product of the running back’s speed and effectiveness. So for example, let’s say the first play, the running back loses 1 yard. The adjusted line yards for the play is -1.2. The next play, the back gains 4 yards. The ADJ LY is 4. The next play, the running back gains 8 yards. The ADJ LY is 6 (4 for yards 1-4 and 2 for yards 5-8). The next play, the running back breaks off a 50 yard touchdown. The ADJ LY is 7 (4 for yards 1-4 and 3 for yards 5-10). This brings us to an average of 3.95 adjusted line yards. If you want a longer description, click here. Remember, the following chart consists only of teams that have received a first round bye since 2009.
First let’s compare last year’s Saints and talk about what NEEDS to happen this year. First of all, look at what jumps out: the Saints had a ridiculously good adjusted line yards last season. Listen to any form of NFL media, and they’ll tell you how incredible the Cowboys’ offensive line was last season. However, the Saints led the league in adjusted line yards last season, and it wasn’t close. The gap from the Saints to the #2 team in the NFL in adjusted line yards was larger than the gap between #2 and #9. Take that along with the Saints’ yards per attempt compared to teams with a first round bye, and it’s really not close. The Saints are far more effective than even your typical top 4 team in the league at running the football (the Saints are more than a whole standard deviation above the average in adjusted line yards).
So if the Saints are such an effective rushing team, why does it feel like they haven’t been among those NFL elite rushing units? And we know how lethal the Saints’ passing attack is. If the rushing game is this elite as well, why has this team seen so little success. Well your answer lies in those first two numbers. The Saints simply haven’t run the ball enough. Now don’t immediately blame Sean Payton and the play calling. This isn’t a situation where if the Saints simply ran the ball 3-4 more times per game, they magically turn into a 12-4 team. A lot of this is anecdotal: the team is constantly in shootouts. If the offense comes out balanced but sputters on a couple of early drives, all of a sudden, they might be in a 10 point hole because of the defense. And although the team could’ve tried to commit to remaining balanced, that chews up more clock, and, as we all know, this passing offense is more than capable of putting up yards and points on its own. And the same goes for the other way around. One reason the number of rushes for a lot of these great teams is so high is that these teams are jumping out ahead in games, so they are running in the 4th quarter. And Sean Payton has proven in the past that he’s more than willing to run the ball if it’s effective and if the game is within reach. In 2009, the Saints ran the ball 468 times, almost a full rush per game above the average among teams with a first round bye.
There are ways around running the ball more. As you can see, some teams won 12-13 games despite having an inept running game. But these teams got by on other areas of the game: namely, they usually had an elite defense and quarterback to go along with a very good passing offense. One common trend occurs with these teams though that’s very crucial. Although their running games were very ineffective, each team with a dreadful running game had among the fewest fumbles and fumbles/attempt of the 32 teams analyzed. So the Saints can get away with a few games of being one-dimensional so long as when they are running the ball, they aren’t making critical mistakes and turning it over.
But somehow, someway, if the Saints are going to be a team that is hosting a Divisional Playoff game, they’re going to have to run the ball more within the regular flow of the game. That means 1) the defense needs to improve enough where the running game can get going, and the Saints can stay balanced throughout the game and 2) the running game needs to be as effective as we know it can be from the start. These two can also feed off each other as they really go hand-in-hand.
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An effective defense keeps the game in reach, allowing the offense to stay balanced and the running game to wear the defense down. An effective running game throughout the course of a game also helps the offense sustain drives, keeping the opposing offense off the field, and giving the Saints’ defense much-needed rest. These two work like clockwork together, and if they’re each operating effectively, we’ll see the Saints in more situations where they’re reaching 30 rushes simply because the game is out of reach so they’re running against an exhausted and defeated defense to run out the clock.
So now to the main question: can the Saints do this? Can they be a team that maintains its rushing effectiveness from last year? (Note: we’re going to assume passable defense because the rushing attempts can’t be 100% fixed by the running game. The defense needs to keep it close)
The answer is a clear and resounding “yes”.
Look at the incredible numbers from this past year. I have a very hard time seeing a scenario where the Saints don’t surpass each of those numbers. The defense should be more effective. The offensive line lost Terron Armstead for at least a significant part of the season, but he only played about 35% of snaps last season when the Saints had an elite rushing attack. The team added Larry Warford who was the 16th highest graded (for rushing) offensive guard in the NFL per Pro Football Focus. The Saints also drafted Ryan Ramczyk who led all FBS offensive tackle in run-blocking grade per Pro Football Focus this year. Even if Armstead is never fully healthy this year, the Saints should have a much better run-blocking offensive line this season. Oh, and did I mention the line was already very good last year?
Then look at the running backs. Mark Ingram has turned into one of the better running backs in the NFL. He cracked 1000 yards last season on a stellar 5.1 yards per carry, graded well per Pro Football Focus, and stayed healthy all season. He’s become a consistent 70 yard per game running back for the Saints who’s been improving the last few seasons. A little step up from Ingram could move him into a tier just below the elite running backs in the NFL. But Sean Payton has found that the most effective way to utilize Ingram is by limiting his carries. While Ingram’s very effective, it appears Payton has found that 12-14 carries per game maximizes Ingram’s production and keeps him on the field. So let’s say Ingram is running 14-15 times per game next year at his usual effective rate. That leaves another 13-15 carries per game which, judging from last year, 10-14 of those will go to the #2 back.
While Alvin Kamara will have a larger impact on the passing game, he still will likely receive a few carries per game, and I believe he’ll be effective because he’ll likely be running against nickel or dime sets. But Adrian Peterson will be receiving the bulk of the carries outside of Ingram. And it’s hard not to get excited about his prospects. He’ll be running behind one of the best offensive lines he’s ever been behind against 6 and 7 man fronts as opposed to the constant 8 man boxes he faced in Minnesota. And while Peterson likely won’t be as dominant as he was in his MVP season or even 2 seasons ago, running only 10-15 times per game in these opportune situations, it’s hard to imagine Peterson won’t be incredibly effective.
While Tim Hightower was a remarkable story and a great person to root for, the step up to Peterson cannot be overstated. We’ve all watched him play, and we’ve all seen the rave reports about him in minicamp. If Peterson can be as effective or almost as effective as Ingram with his carries, the Saints are looking at 27-30 carries a game at over 5 yards a carry. That wouldn’t be just a great rushing offense, that’d be a historically effective offense. And not only does that not seem out of the question, I think it’s likely.
This Saints rushing offense doesn’t have to be elite for the team to have a chance to win 12 games. But it very well may be anyway, and if this team can run the ball at the elite level it’s capable of, this offense could soar to 2009 or 2011 heights… or above.
And if that happens, there’s a chance.