49ers offense searching for answers
Drew Brees was 34-for-41 for 392 yards in barely more than three quarters. (USATSI)
METAIRIE, La. -- As much as Sean Payton would like to see his offense's record-setting performance against Dallas carry forward, experience tells him that assuming so would be unwise.
"You don't play many games like that, and every once in a while you find yourself on the good end and sometimes you find yourself once in a while on the bad end," Payton said Monday, a day after the Saints piled up an NFL-record 40 first downs in a 49-17 triumph over the Cowboys. "You hope when your career is done you have more experiences on the good end."
During the Payton era, the Saints usually have been on the favorable end of lopsided games. The latest example came as they moved into the second half of their schedule holding a one-game lead in the NFC South Division.
By piling up 625 yards against Dallas - a Saints record for a regular season game - New Orleans' offense jumped from seventh to second in the NFL in yards per game (422.7). That is a more familiar spot for the Saints, who led the league in total offense four times during Payton's first six seasons as a head coach.
Running back Pierre Thomas was a part of three of those No. 1 offenses, including the 2011 Saints, who set the NFL record for most yards (7,474) in a season.
"I know we were capable of doing those type of things," said Thomas, who rushed for 87 yards and a score against Dallas. "We just were going through a lot at the beginning of the season, putting ourselves in a bad position, putting ourselves in holes with penalties and jumping offside, delay of games, little things that we could correct.
"We couldn't really find that groove, that good tempo. And this game we really found it," Thomas continued. "So we showed ourselves and everybody else that we do have an explosive offense, and a fast offense, and an offense that could make plays and get things done. We just have to go out there and have the confidence in ourselves to just do it."
The Saints will be hard-pressed to replicate Sunday night's performance next weekend against San Francisco, whose sixth-ranked defense has been far superior to Dallas' last-ranked unit.
Against the Cowboys, Saints quarterback Drew Brees completed about 83 percent of his passes (34 of 41) for 392 yards in barely more than three quarters. He did not attempt another pass after his 52-yard TD strike toKenny Stills with 12:51 left in the game.
Brees has had plenty of performances like that, including a couple earlier this season, but the Saints had struggled to move the ball on the ground most of this season.
One week after gaining only 41 yards on 13 runs in a 26-20 loss to the Jets in New York, the Saints gashed Dallas for 242 yards on the ground, New Orleans' most in a game since 1990.
New Orleans also converted nine of 12 third downs, did not turn the ball over and finished with a whopping 39:32 to 20:28 advantage in time of possession.
"It reminds me of `09, how we were clicking on all cylinders and moving the ball really well, really explosive on the offensive side," Thomas said, alluding to the lone Super Bowl championship season in franchise history. "That game showed us and reminded us we can do."
The emergence of the running game gratified the Saints on several levels. New Orleans wanted restore some balance to its attack to reduce pressure on Brees, who'd been sacked 20 times in the first eight games and hit as he threw a lot more than that.
Payton's own experience points to the merits of strong running game. The coach's best regular season record is 13-3, which he has posted twice, once in 2009 and again in 2011. In both seasons, New Orleans ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing, averaging around 132 yards on the ground.
Meanwhile, New Orleans finally got a breakout performance by 2011 first-round draft choice Mark Ingram, who gained 145 yards on only 14 carries.
"You saw a player that ran hard and had holes and did a lot of the things that I'm sure he felt he could do," Payton said. "There's a lot of pressure that goes into playing and I guess a little more for a player that was selected in the first round. ... He played well last night and that was important."