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Payton: Running game must improve, and has been

Although the Saints haven't been known as a running team in the Sean Payton era, the coach and his players are well aware that New Orleans' past two playoff seasons came when they ran the ball well.

Through five games this season, the defending Super Bowl champions rank 31st — or second to last — in the NFL in yards rushing per game at 75.6, a figure Payton wants to see rise in a hurry.

"When we've been clicking, we've had balance and we just haven't been throwing the ball," Payton said after Wednesday's practice. "We do a lot of play-action and that's effective when you're running the ball efficiently. That's something that we'll continue to work on."

The Saints' rushing average has increased marginally during the past two weeks, despite injuries to top two running backs Pierre Thomas (sprained left ankle) and Reggie Bush (broken right leg).

Thomas, who was the Saints' top rusher last season (793 yards), has missed the past two games and did not practice on Wednesday, leaving his status unclear for Sunday's game at Tampa Bay. Bush, who rushed for 390 yards last season, has missed the last three games and expects to miss at least one more.

In 2009, Thomas, Bush and Mike Bell, who rushed for 654 yards, led a ground attack that ranked sixth in the NFL with 131.6 yards per game. In 2006, the Saints' only other playoff season under Payton, they averaged 110 yards rushing and ranked 19th.

This season, the Saints were counting on Lynell Hamilton to take over for Bell as their pounding, short-yardage, ball-control running back, but Hamilton went out for the season with a torn right knee ligament in training camp.

Soon after, running back P.J. Hill went out for the season with a torn triceps.

Now the Saints are relying on rookie Chris Ivory and veteran Ladell Betts, who was signed in Week 3.

But when addressing the Saints' trouble running the ball, Payton said he doesn't "want to point to injuries."

The running game is "an area that we feel like we're going to improve on," Payton said. "We understand the importance of that aspect to what we do."

This week, the Saints brought in Julius Jones, who was with Dallas when Payton was an offensive assistant there under Bill Parcells.

Jones said Payton has maintained some of the same terminology he used in Dallas, making his adjustment smoother.

"It's really good to see a familiar face," Jones said. "Some of the offense is similar ... so the transition for me is not as hard as it would be for any other guy.

"I want to come in here, make some sort of impact and help this team out," Jones said. "I have a lot of ball left. I haven't been beat up. I've got fresh legs. I just came off of my bye, so I'm ready to go."

The Saints are averaging 3.3 yards per carry, which ranks 30th. They are 19th in rushing attempts, averaging 23.2 per game. The top four rushing teams in the NFL — the New York Jets, Atlanta, Kansas City and Jacksonville — all are running the ball more than 32 times per game.

New Orleans did not appear to have serious problems running the ball in their season opener. Although they attempted only three runs in the first half of their 14-9 win over Minnesota, Thomas carried 17 times for 70 yards in the second half, helping the Saints protect their lead.

However, New Orleans' ground game gained only 50 yards at San Francisco, then only 43 yards the following week in an overtime loss to Atlanta. Thomas injured his ankle late in the Falcons game.

New Orleans' best game on the ground was 121 yards in a 16-14 win over Carolina, with Betts and Ivory getting the bulk of the carries.

In Sunday's loss at Arizona, the Saints rushed for 85 yards, which was above their average but also against a Cardinals defense that is allowing 140 yards rushing per game.

Quarterback Drew Brees said the Saints become easier to defend when they rely too much on the passing game, and they are working to find better balance.

"We were one of the top rushing teams in football last year, and I feel like any time you can be balanced ... that run game sets up the play action, the down-the-field throws, the big-play opportunities," Brees said. "All those things are critical to being a very explosive offense and we feel like we are getting back on track with the run game."

Notes: Ivory said he does not expect a pending assault charge in the state of Washington to affect his season with the Saints. "I didn't commit that," Ivory said about allegations he hit a man over the head with a bottle in July 2009. "That's something that happened almost two years ago. The Saints were aware of it. I have no further comments." If convicted on the second-degree assault charge, Ivory could be sentenced to between three and nine months in jail. Whitman County prosecutor Denis Tracy said he'd be willing to schedule court dates in the case after the season as long as the delay does not hurt the case. ... Defensive back Randall Gay missed practice with headaches that Payton said may be related to a concussion that occurred in Week 2. Safety Roman Harper, who played on Sunday after coming back from a hamstring injury, also sat out practice. Defensive end Will Smith, who missed the Cardinals game with a groin injury, was limited.

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