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49ers Vs. Saints: A Closer Look at the Saints Run Game Statistics

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I'm not a statistician. I don't even know if I spelled it right, in fact. But I do find stats interesting and I think they contribute to the bigger picture. With that in mind, understand that this post is just a theoretical musing based on a few things I dug around to find.

When the Saints beat Detroit last weekend I noticed that they were running the ball quite well. Their total rushing yardage was 167, so yeah, that's pretty good.

I took a look at their rushing yards over the course of the season and found out that they were sixth in the league with 2,127 yards. Not what you expected from a team with Drew Brees slinging around the rock and breaking NFL passing records? Me neither. (Those of you who expected it, go jump off a cliff).

That to me said that running the ball is a key part of the Saints offense, one that, if the 49ers could stop it, might make a huge difference in how successful they are on offense. That's the knee-jerk reaction anyways. But then a wise man and twitter follower, Brad Hill (SBN Profile, Twitter Profile), asked me how many of those yards were while "salting away a lead". Great question...let's jump (unless you went off said cliff already) to find out.

So how would I find out how often the Saints ran to protect a lead? It's probably not all that easy to "prove" when they were doing so versus continuing along with their usual approach on offense. But at least we can get some idea as to the game situation compared to rushing yards.

I asked our good friend Mike Sando for help. He always has stats handy, eerily if he sleeps with a tablet filled with nothing but stats...but that's another post for another day.

Mike was kind enough to provide me with some numbers regarding the point differential at the time yards were gained. According to him, the Saints are second in the NFL in rushing yards when leading on the scoreboard. They gain 27.3% of their rushing yards while protecting a lead.

I'm not sure if Mike used my criteria for protecting a lead, which isn't scientific (10+ point lead in quarters 1-3, 14+ point lead in 4th quarter), or if he used his own formula. I do know that he understood what I was after and that these numbers are at least a decent indicator of the Saints' tendencies with regard to running the ball.

I also reseached run/pass stats by quarter, which are as follows:

1st Q 2nd Q 3rd Q 4th Q OT Total
Run Plays 93 87 108 140 3 431
Rush Yards 560 419 558 580 10 2127
Yards/Att 6.02 4.82 5.17 4.14 3.33 4.94
Pass Plays 146 213 144 156 3 662
Points Scored 5.8 10.4 8.2 10.2 0.2 34.8
Points Allowed 4.5 7.1 4.4 5.6 0 21.6
Total Plays 239 300 252 296 6 1093
% Pass 61.1% 71.0% 57.1% 52.7% 50.0% 60.6%
% Run 38.9% 29.0% 42.9% 47.3% 50.0% 39.4%

You can see that to open the game, the Saints are in attack mode. The game is still close here as they allow just 1.3 points per game less than they score. They're averaging six yards per carry, which sets up the pass game nicely.

They really ramp up the passing game in the second quarter. This seems to be their time to put the pedal to the metal, and it's working. They score 3.3 points more than their opponents in the second. They're calling more than double the pass plays to run plays.

In the third quarter, when the average score is in their favor, the Saints go back to the run, and it works. They're still outscoring their opponents, playing keep-away and protecting their lead.

The fourth quarter shows the Saints running the ball more than ever, and the point differential shows it. At this point it seems like defenses have checked out as the Saints are scoring their second highest point average of any quarter despite running the ball so much.

Another few numbers: The Saints are fifth in the NFL in rushing first-downs. They're also tied for third in rushing touchdowns. They're also first in passing first-downs and basically...they get a lot of first downs and touchdowns however they need to...not much of an indicator here.

I'm not sure I can draw any definitive conclusions from these numbers since they are only just a piece to the puzzle, but I do find them interesting. I would say that stopping the run early is key since they like to open up the game that way. I have my doubts that the passing game would be so opened-up if they weren't averaging four-to-six yards per carry in the first half.

The pass seems to be the most important part of building their leads, usually in the second quarter. They've had success in running the ball and that sets up the passing game.

All in all I think these stats illustrate how much of a total effort on defense will be required in order to slow-down the Saints. Stopping the run always helps, and I have little doubt that we will stop it, but this team is skewed heavily toward the pass and has had success doing it. Still, shutting down that productive run-game early would seem to disrupt their plan.

Pass rush, safety-play, and tackling are probbly going to be the biggest keys to the game. The fact that we know the Saints will drop back to pass a lot means Aldon Smith the the sub packages will be employed quite a bit. I'm hoping we can get to Brees and stay disciplined on the back end to limit big plays.

It also seems we better be ready for the start of the game on defense, because those numbers are striking. If we can limit their scoring in the second, it's interesting to note they're giving up a touchdown in that quarter on defense, too. They seem to like being up at half-time. The 49ers can't let that happen.