Will no Wilfork boost Saints' run game?

Will no Wilfork boost Saints' run game?
October 9, 2013, 9:15 pm
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The Saints bring a high-powered offense into Foxboro on Sunday.

(AP Photo)

FOXBORO -- The New Orleans Saints enter the game Sunday against the Patriots ranked 26th in the NFL in rushing.

They only have combined for 391 yards on the ground, and average 78.2 rushing yards per game.

Running back Pierre Thomas is New Orleans' leading rusher, with 137 yards on 48 attempts, with no rushing touchdowns. His longest run is for 11 yards in five games.

Thomas does have two touchdown receptions this season, but his goal is to help fix the run game. In fact, that's the whole team's goal, as they look to continue their success.

"The two allies for good quarterback play starts with good defensive football, and then the ability to have some balance with the running game, to go along with the passing game," said Saints coach Sean Payton in a conference call on Wednesday. "We're still a work in progress with our running game, but I think that it becomes more challenging at that position when you're playing in high-scoring games, and there's that pressure that you feel like you have to score X amount of points each week to win."

"We want to get better at this run game," said Thomas in his conference call. "But hey, it takes time."

If there was ever a "time" for the Saints' run game to improve, it would be Sunday against a Patriots defense that is playing their second full game without Vince Wilfork running the show on their defensive line, which allowed 162 yards on the ground to the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday.

"At this point, I can't really say if it's going to be good or bad," said Thomas. "I just know that we've put together a good run-game plan, and we're just working this week to execute that. We know we're going against a tough defense. That linebacker corps is very stout, very heavy, very big, and we've just got to get off of those guys fast and push those guys back."

Still, doesn't Wilfork's absence open things up?

"A little bit," said Thomas. "They've still got a couple of big guys up front that are very good. But without him, it does kind of give us a little lenience to our side, but we can't take that for granted. They still have several other players that can step up and do the job too.

"That's a big loss for them," Thomas said of Wilfork, who is lost for the season after tearing his Achilles' against the Falcons,  "but they still have guys that we have to worry about. We know he was a big key, a big asset to their defense, but they have other guys who can do damage too."

Payton believes that the Patriots will make adjustments with their "next man up" motto.

"I think every team goes through the transition of losing potential players," said Payton. "And I think it still gets back to team defense, team offense, and there is that mindset of 'the next player up, the next man up.' It's existed with us this year, with the loss of a handful of players that, in the spring or in training camp, we thought would be starters for us. And I'm sure the same thing is taking place with New England."

Outside of Wilfork -- and even with the possible absence of Tommy Kelly, who did not participate in Wednesday's practice with a knee injury that he suffered on Sunday in Cincinnati -- the Saints believe that New England's group of linebackers is good enough to pick up the slack for a weaker defensive line.

"Those guys are very stout, very heavy, pretty fast on the outside," Thomas. "You've got Rob Ninkovich, who's a good pass rusher. We really have to focus on him, getting up the field on our tackles. We have to slow him down on the outside a little bit.

"And you've got their big, heavy linebackers. These guys are very heavy, not too fast. [Brandon] Spikes, I know he's a very heavy guy," Thomas said. "They have so much experience, and blitz-pickup wise, we really have to have our feet buried deep into the ground and be ready to deliver a blow, because these guys are very strong. And we know they're going to come full force right at us. So we have a lot to worry about."