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Saints players to watch against Lions: Running backs

This week, the opposing players to watch against the Detroit Lions are New Orleans Saints running backs Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Saints' running game has probably been the most successful component of the team so far this year. The Saints defense is mediocre at best and ranked at or near the bottom of the league in every statistical measurement. Their passing game is ranked second in the league in terms of yardage, but it has been inefficient. In contrast, the Saints' rushing game has been brutally efficient. The team is averaging 5.2 yards per carry on the ground, and they move the chains on 33.3 percent of their rushing attempts.

The Saints achieve this effective running game with the specialized running back committee they have used for several years. Three players -- Khiry Robinson (61 carries), Mark Ingram (24 carries) and Pierre Thomas (24 carries) -- split carries in the system, and each has a unique role.

Typically, Ingram is the Saints' bread-and-butter, between-the-tackles running back. The former first-round pick out of Alabama is now in his fourth season with the Saints, and he has enjoyed significant success in their system. In his short career, he has only 380 carries in the Saints' committee system, but he has turned that into 1,605 yards and 14 touchdowns. Despite the light workload, Ingram has struggled with injuries the past two seasons. In 2014, he has missed the past three weeks after injuring his hand in Week 2. He is expected to play this week after a full week of practice, but he may have some rust after playing only 40 snaps so far this season.

Stepping in as the primary ball carrier in Ingram's absence was Robinson. Unlike Ingram, Robinson does not have an impressive football pedigree. The Saints signed Robinson as an undrafted free agent out of West Texas A&M last season, and he played sparingly. In the committee system, Robinson is a change-of-pace back for Ingram, but Ingram's Week 2 injury forced Robinson into the spotlight. He responded well and is averaging 5.0 yards per carry on the season. The most memorable run of his career was his last, where he broke several tackles en route to an 18-yard touchdown in overtime to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 5.

Finally, Thomas is kind of a Darren Sproles 2.0. The eighth-year veteran is the committee's primary pass catcher out of the backfield. Thomas has 24 carries on the year with a 5.0 yards per carry average to go with 22 receptions for 187 yards and a touchdown. The Saints basically do whatever they can to get Thomas the ball in space.

So how will the committee fair against the Detroit Lions' stout new defense? Not well. The Saints' rushing stats look great on paper, but they have been blessed with an easy schedule of run defenses. None of their five opponents so far this season are ranked in the top half of the league in run defense. In contrast, the Lions defense is ranked second in the league in terms of yards allowed per game on the ground and fourth in yards allowed per carry.

The Saints may swap running backs in and out to keep fresh legs on the field, but the Lions defense does the same thing. The Lions' front seven is deep and can go substitution-for-substitution with the Saints' offensive packages. Adding in the fact that new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi knows a thing or two about the Saints' offensive scheme and I like the Lions' chances to shut down the Saints' potent offense on Sunday.

Obviously, the Saints' primary threat still comes through their passing game. Quarterback Drew Brees is having an off year -- for him -- but is still extremely dangerous. His offensive line has given him plenty of protection this season, and he has only taken five sacks on the year. However, the Dallas-New Orleans game showed how vulnerable the Saints are when they get into "pass only" mode. In that game, while trying to mount a comeback, the Saints turned the ball over three times and gave up two of their five sacks on the season while rushing the ball only 12 times all game.

The Lions might be able to replicate that situation even if they are not playing with a huge lead like Dallas was. If they shut down the Saints' running game like I think they will, they can turn the Saints into a one-dimensional team. That is not as scary this year as in year's past. Brees does not have the pass-catching weapons he is used to this year, especially with tight end Jimmy Graham injured. Forcing the Saints into passing situations will allow the Lions defense to pin their ears back and put the pressure on Brees.

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