METAIRIE, La. — Saints running back Tim Hightower isn't about to assume New Orleans' ground game will return to its usual form in Tampa on Sunday — even if last week's anemic performance looked more like an anomaly than a trend.
"You can't look at what you did three weeks ago or what you did a month ago or at the beginning of the season," Hightower said. "You have to look at, 'Hey, why didn't we get it done this (past) week.' We've got to figure out what we didn't do last week and get it corrected."
Hightower and several other key members of the Saints' offense echoed the same theory about what caused the dropoff in production on the ground in a 28-13 loss to the Detroit Lions last Sunday, when New Orleans rushed for only 50 yards.
The problem wasn't so much an inability to execute blocks or read the defense, they said. It was about a lack of opportunity to establish a rhythm because of how poorly the Saints executed on third downs, whether they were passing or running.
"If we can learn anything for last week … it's so important and imperative for us to sustain drives, keep the momentum going, keep the ball control," Hightower said. "Then you'll get more runs. You'll get more favorable runs. But when we're three-and-out, three-and-out, teams can just hold the ball and try to play keep away from us and it's not going to work out well."
The Saints, who boast the No. 1 offense in the NFL, currently rank 12th in rushing, averaging 109.3 yards. When the Saints have run well, they've been tough to beat.
In Week 8, when Hightower rushed for more than 100 yards, the Saints beat Seattle. In Week 9, Ingram gained 158 yards and Hightower 87 in a lopsided victory at San Francisco. Then in Week 11, Ingram gained 146 and Hightower 51 in a rout of the Rams.
"A good running game is a quarterback's best friend because it makes the defense respect it," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. "Then when you go to play-action you get bigger windows (to throw). And Brees, his accuracy is off the charts."
A few days after that victory over Los Angeles, Lions safety Glover Quin said he felt the key to stopping the Saints' offense began with shutting down the running game. Ingram broke loose for one 22-yard gain against Detroit but had only 15 yards on his six other carries. Hightower gained just 5 yards on two carries, one of which went for no gain on a drive-stalling third-and-1 play.
"We want to be balanced, obviously," right guard Jahri Evans said, adding that linemen don't particularly like "back-peddling" in pass protection all game. That essentially forces offensively linemen to play defensively against attacking pass rushers rather than firing off the line of scrimmage and inflicting physical punishment on defensive players.
"First, it comes with just having the opportunities," Evans said of getting the running game going again. "Getting the opportunity means converting on third down."
For the season, the Saints lead the NFL with a third-down conversion rate of 49.7 percent. They converted six of 13 third downs (46 percent) against Detroit but also saw three drives stall on interceptions thrown by Drew Brees. The result: New Orleans ran 62 total plays on offense, about 11 fewer than its average coming in. All but 23 of those plays were run in the second half, when New Orleans was behind and more inclined to throw.
Brees said if the Saints can sustain long drives and don't fall behind by much, if at all, at Tampa Bay, that should set the stage for a resurgent ground game.
"We didn't get the number of plays," Brees said when asked for his take on why the running game's production plummeted last week. "If you don't sustain drives and you get behind, then all of a sudden you're in a position where it changes the game plan a little bit and you become a little more one-dimensional. You have to manufacture some bigger plays to get back in the game. That was the real reason for the lack of rushing attempts, and therefore production in yards."
NOTES: Three players missed practiced Wednesday: linebacker Craig Robertson (shoulder), receiver Michael Thomas (foot) and tight end Josh Hill (fibula). Those players listed as limited included Ingram (toe, knee), left tackle Terron Armstead (quadriceps, knee), center Max Unger (foot), right tackle Zach Strief (elbow), guard Senio Kelemete (hip) and running back Daniel Lasco (hamstring).