METAIRIE, La. – Darren Sproles is back at practice and close to rejoining a New Orleans running game that hardly resembles the anemic one he was part of before he went out with a broken left hand.
The Saints were last in the league in rushing, averaging only 72.6 yards, through their first seven games of this season.
During each of their last two games — victories over Philadelphia and previously unbeaten Atlanta — the Saints have gained at least 140 yards on the ground while clawing their way back to the fringes of the NFC wild card playoff race.
"We've been getting a great push up front, creating little seams for us to run through," said Mark Ingram, who has looked like a running back transformed the past two weeks. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. "has been doing a great job of dialing up the right calls at the right moment and we've just been running hard. So we've definitely had some of our best runs this year the past two weeks."
It is not clear whether Sproles will play at Oakland this Sunday as coaches and trainers monitor how he handles practices with a protective glove on his injured hand. Assistant head coach Joe Vitt said Wednesday's practice was non-contact and Sproles was officially listed as limited.
"He caught the ball well," Vitt said. "He ran great. I was very encouraged with his work today."
If Sproles does return, coaches will have to figure out the best way to work him back into the rotation with Ingram, Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas.
"We're going to activate whoever gives us the best chance to win. That changes week to week on the opponent that we're playing, the fronts that we're seeing, the potential weather we're playing in," Vitt said. "Those things help us make a decision on a week to week basis on who will play in the game."
The speedy Sproles is often more of a threat in the passing game out of the backfield than on running plays, though he has been productive carrying the ball as well at times. This weekend, rain is expected in the San Francisco Bay area. Meanwhile, Oakland ranks 21st against the run. Those factors could sway the Saints toward a game plan similar to the hard-running approach, featuring Chris Ivory, that they used the past two weeks.
Ivory has burst back onto the scene in New Orleans after sitting out the first seven games with little explanation from coaches as to why. His performances in the past two games make it tough to keep him out of the lineup now.
Ivory has carried the ball 17 times for 120, an average of 7.1 yards per carry. That includes a 22-yard touchdown against the Eagles and a stirring 56-yard scoring run against the Falcons.
Asked whether he thought his last two outings would make coaches think twice before benching him again, Ivory said, "Yeah, they would. But I think as long as I'm doing the right things and get a plus on the plays that I get, I think that just helps me out and allows them to give that much more trust in me."
The improvement hasn't been all Ivory, though. Thomas has averaged nearly 5 yards per carry the past two games, though he has also seen regular work in the short passing game, particularly on screens. Ingram, meanwhile, has had two of his best games of the season.
In the first seven games, Ingram rushed 47 times for 134 yards, an average of 2.9 yards per carry. In the past two games, he has rushed 23 times for 111 yards, a 4.8-yard average.
Ingram scoffed at the notion that he was more motivated to produce after witnessing Ivory's emergence, but the former Heisman Trophy winner acknowledged that he naturally does not want to be outperformed by anyone at his position.
"Seeing him run hard is great and he's a great runner, but just because he runs hard doesn't mean he makes me run harder. I mean, I run hard anyway," Ingram said. "You see him go out there and do well, you want to do well. It's not anything crazy, but definitely, as pros we're competitors and you definitely want to do a good job."
Whatever the case, Oakland defenders have noticed that the Saints' ground game is rolling again, giving them something else to worry about as they also try to figure out how to slow down Drew Brees and New Orleans second-ranked passing game.
"That's been one of the keys to them turning their season around. They've been able to run the ball pretty well the last few games," Raiders cornerback Ron Bartell said. "They've got Pierre Thomas, Ivory and Ingram. Those are pretty physical backs. We're going to have to do a good job on the edges. The corners are going to have to tackle. We have our hands full, but it's a challenge that we're looking forward to."
NOTES: Three players missed practice: RT Zach Strief (groin), DE Junior Galette (left ankle) and CB Corey White (left knee). Although Vitt did not specify the severity of White's knee injury, he said it did not require surgery. ... WR-KR Courtney Roby returned to practice after missing the past two games with an injured left shoulder.
AP Sports Writer Josh Dubow in Alameda, Calif., contributed to this report
Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL