Payton: Running game must improve, and has been

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METAIRIE, LA. (AP) - 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.”

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