The New Orleans Saints are three-quarters of the way through the season and their offense has evolved from what it has traditionally been.
Since head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in 2006, the Saints offense has been dominated by the passing attack, though periodically the running game has become a bigger part of the scheme.
But this season, the impact of the running game -- the tandem of Mark Ingram II and rookie Alvin Kamara -- has been significantly greater than last season, perhaps even more than Payton envisioned in the preseason.
Last season, the passing game accounted for 77 percent of the yards and this season it has been 67 percent. The running game is accumulating 30 percent more yards per game than it did last season.
Payton said his play-calling has evolved over the course of the season as he has come to understand just how versatile Kamara is.
"If we would have known what we were going to get as a runner, we would not have taken him in the third round, we would have (selected him) earlier," Payton said.
The more balanced attack has the Saints (9-3) all alone in first place in the NFC South as they prepare to face the defending division champion Falcons (7-5) for the first time this season on Thursday night in Atlanta.
Kamara's emergence led to the trading of Adrian Peterson and has kept him on equal footing with Ingram.
"I still want to be in there more and carry the ball more, but it's working and there's enough touches for both of us," Ingram said. "We're both staying fresh and we're able to make it work and we're able to help put our team in position to win games.
"You really cannot label either one of us. Both of us have the complete package and he can run physical, he can run strong, he is hard to tackle. He can get in space and make you miss and hit home runs. When I get the chance, I like to show my speed and hit home runs. When I get my number called in between the tackles or guards I like to be able to run hard and physical. I want to be that complete package of speed, explosion, power."
The evolution of the offense certainly doesn't mean New Orleans is a running team or Brees' passing isn't on an elite level. The Saints rank third in the NFL in passing yards per game and Brees is completing 70 percent of his passes.
96th regular-season meeting. Falcons lead series, 50-45. Atlanta has won the last two meetings, including the last one, a 38-32 triumph in the Georgia Dome in the 2016 regular-season finale. The Falcons beat the Saints, 27-20, in an NFC wild-card playoff game in 1991, and the Saints beat the Falcons, 23-3, in 2006 when the Superdome reopened a year after Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans is 16-8 since Payton took over as head coach.
New Orleans is 5-5 in Thursday night games, including 3-1 against Atlanta, its most frequent Thursday night opponent. The Saints are 2-5 away from home on Thursday night, including 1-1 in Atlanta.
If the Saints win this game, the Falcons will be unable to finish with a better record than New Orleans. The Saints would have a three-game lead on Atlanta with three to play and would have the tie-breaking advantage with a rematch to come Dec. 24 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. New Orleans is one game ahead of second-place Carolina and holds the tiebreaker over the Panthers.
BUMPS AND BRUISES
RB Mark Ingram II (toe) did not participate in practice Tuesday. ... G Andrus Peat (groin) did not participate in practice Tuesday. ... T Terron Armstead (thigh/shoulder), S Marcus Williams (groin), CB Marshon Lattimore (ankle), CB Ken Crawley (abdomen), CB P.J. Williams (shoulder), DE Trey Hendrickson (knee) and LB A.J. Klein (groin) all were limited in practice Tuesday.
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