METAIRIE, La. – When Drew Brees has handed off to Pierre Thomas or Darren Sproles, it hasn't amounted to much lately.
Yet when Brees has targeted either running back with short passes, it has produced first downs, touchdowns, sustained drives and victories for the unbeaten New Orleans Saints.
Through five games, Thomas and Sproles have combined for nearly double the yards and three times more touchdowns in the passing game than the running game — despite the fact that they are also the top two rushers on the team.
Such statistical trends do not necessarily reflect well on New Orleans' running game, but also demonstrate how dynamic coach Sean Payton's offense can be.
"In a lot of cases, we look to the short passing game as an extension of the run. So when you're efficient with the passing game it can serve that purpose a little bit," Brees said. "Now would we like to be better than we have been rushing the football in certain situations? Yes. ... But I'd say those guys (Sproles and Thomas), just from the sheer standpoint of touches, contributions, the passing game is just as important to them as the run game."
Thomas has accounted for 166 yards and two touchdowns receiving, including a key 25-yard score on a screen pass in Chicago last weekend. He has 137 yards and no touchdowns rushing. Sproles has 308 yards and one touchdown receiving, versus 103 yards and one TD rushing.
Both running backs say they're by no means satisfied by their production on the ground and hope to improve in that area at New England this weekend. At the same time, they appreciate the chances they get to make up for it through the air.
"You've got to call what works, and if you see the running game isn't working too good, you want to start going to the passing game, which has always been working for us. But we want to be a balanced team," Thomas said. "We want to establish a running game. That's something we take pride in and something we want to focus on more ... We haven't given up on the ground game at all."
Currently the Saints rank 26th in the NFL in rushing, averaging 78.2 yards per game. Still the Saints have managed to sustain drives and control the ball. Their average time of possession of 34:37 ranks first in the NFL.
"Statistically, it doesn't look like our running game is doing very well right now, but if you look at the games as a whole, a lot of our short passing game ... is really helping us control time of possession," center Brian de la Puente said. "Ultimately, we want to put ourselves in the best situation to have the most advantageous play called. Sometimes that's going to be those quick passes and unfortunately the run game suffers.
"Pierre has an uncanny ability to set up blocks, make us look good on screen plays, the short passing game, check downs," de la Puente continued. "Darren is just tough to cover in space ... He creates a lot of interesting matchups and he's so dang quick it makes it difficult to cover him especially in short and intermediate routes."
The Patriots agree.
"It's definitely tough, especially when they have great receivers," Patriots safety Steve Gregory said of monitoring Sproles and Thomas. "They have a tight end that can really stretch the field and then you got backs that can not only run it when you hand it off to them but they can spread out and line up as a receiver and hurt you in that way. So they definitely present challenges and it's something that we'll have to be on top of our game and know where those guys are on the field at all times, and try to come up with a scheme and a plan to stop them."
Notes: S Roman Harper (knee), WR Lance Moore (hand), RT Zach Strief (ankle) and DE Tyrunn Walker (knee) sat out Wednesday's practice, while DT Brodrick Bunkley, RB Mark Ingram (toe), S Malcolm Jenkins (neck) and CB Keenan Lewis (knee) were limited. Ingram has not been listed as practicing since Week 2. ... OLB Keyunta Dawson, newly signed following the release of OLB Jay Richardson on Tuesday, practiced with the Saints on Wednesday and wore No. 55.
AP Sports Writer Howard Ulman contributed to this report from Foxboro, Mass.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org