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The Saints avenged their Week Six loss to the Buccaneers on Sunday, and it didn't take 300-plus passing yards from QB Drew Brees for the Saints to hold a comfortable lead for much of the game.
Brees threw for a season-low 258 yards and had two touchdown passes and one interception vs. Tampa Bay, but it was New Orleans' running game, which failed to get going against St. Louis one week earlier, gaining a season-low 56 yards vs. the league's worst run defense, that set the tone.
The Saints played a tough, physical game and ground out 195 yards rushing on 28 carries (7.0 average) in their 27-16 win over Tampa Bay. They were held to 70 yards rushing on 20 carries in their first meeting against the Bucs.
With rookie first-round pick Mark Ingram inactive for the second consecutive week because of a heel bruise, Chris Ivory, in his second game from the PUP list, led the team with 15 carries for 67 yards. Pierre Thomas gained 66 yards on eight carries and scored on a nine-yard run. Even Brees, who had rushed for only 34 yards on 13 carries heading into the game, had a big carry, scrambling up the middle for 20 yards on a 3rd-and-4 play just before the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter.
Darren Sproles, who is in the midst of a career year after signing with the Saints in the offseason, ran four times for 42 yards, setting a career high for rushing yards in a season (347). He also caught five passes for 57 yards and a touchdown.
Sproles, who had a 35-yard run and receptions of 21 and 15 yards, accounting for three of the Saints' eight longest plays.
"When you look at our productivity when we're running the ball effectively, it's through the roof," Brees said. "Both (run and pass) are complementary to one another. I felt like we did a great job of finding our balance today."
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Maintaining that balance has been the issue for the Saints, and the team needs to have it consistently to dominate and contend for another title.
They have rushed for 100 yards or more six times this season and are 6-0 in those games. New Orleans was held to 81 yards rushing or less three times — those games account for their three losses.
There is reason to think the Saints can keep a good balance consistently — three of their next four opponents are ranked 24th or lower vs. the run — but obviously the Rams were able to overcome a low ranking vs. the Saints by building a 24-point lead in Week Eight and forcing them to throw, and the Saints' next opponent, the Falcons, are ranked seventh against the run. They haven't allowed a rushing touchdown in their last two games.
The lead in the NFC South will be on the line when the Saints, who have a half-game lead over the Falcons for first place, travel to the Georgia Dome to face Atlanta in Week 10. The Falcons' front seven should be prepared for a rushing attack that will have confidence after pushing the Bucs around.