CHARLOTTE – When most people think of the New Orleans Saints, they first think of quarterback Drew Brees and the potent passing attack.
When Saints coach Sean Payton thought about his team this past offseason, he thought about how to best help Brees and Co. win more games.
The Saints won seven games last season. This season, with an improved defense and under-the-radar running game, they're already won nine games.
"There were a lot of things about last season that players and coaches wanted to move past," Payton said. "We spent a lot of time in the spring and summer talking about playing complementary football and what wins in our league."
With Payton not coaching because of a season-long suspension in 2012, the Saints defense set NFL record for futility, yielding more yards than any team in league history. The Panthers put them over the top in the season finale at New Orleans, piling up 530 yards in a 44-38 victory.
About two weeks after Payton was reinstated, he hired Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator. The Saints now rank sixth in scoring defense with 19.2 points per game allowed (the Panthers rank first) and are tied for third with 38 sacks (the Panthers rank second). The sack total is their highest total since the 2006 season.
"Our team anxiously got started in the offseason, and Rob and his staff have done a good job of really giving players a plan they could sink their teeth into that fits their skill sets," Payton said. "His personality is contagious. He has a lot of passion for the sport, and his players feed off that."
The improved defense has helped keep the Saints offense on the field more, and New Orleans stands second to the Panthers in time of possession. An underrated aspect of the ball control is the Saints' running game, a deep group paced by Pierre Thomas.
Thomas leads the Saints with 486 rushing yards but also has caught 60 passes. Mark Ingram has 274 rushing yards and is averaging a robust 4.7 yards per carry, and Darren Sproles has 55 receptions.
"It's a good rotation between all of us. We all bring different things to the table," Thomas said. "Mark is explosive, quick and agile, and he's a tough runner that gets third-and-short, fourth-and-short yards. Sproles is quick off the ball and has great hands as a receiver.
"I see myself as a hard-nosed runner who keeps going forward and keeps my legs moving, and I see myself as someone who can catch the ball as well."
If the Saints, four years removed from their Super Bowl triumph, make another deep run, Brees will undoubtedly be a big part of it. These Saints, however, aren't a one-man show.
"A lot of our opponents look at us as a passing team," Thomas said. "But we've shown that we're a balanced team."