METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton has been back on the sideline calling plays for half a season now, and the record-setting offense he designed hasn't quite lived up to its usual standards.
The Saints' offense remains the envy of most of the NFL, ranking seventh in total yards and scoring. Drew Brees is on pace for a third straight 5,000-yard, 40-touchdown season, and ranks third in the NFL in passing.
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Still, the Saints have struggled running the ball, and that has emboldened opponents to dial up more exotic blitzes, producing more sacks and hits on New Orleans' franchise quarterback.
Payton -- who has had four No. 1 offenses and none worse than sixth in six previous seasons on the sideline -- generally dismisses statistical comparisons between his 2013 offense and more productive units of years past. But that doesn't mean he's satisfied.
"There's a lot of things we're working to get better at, clean up," Payton said. "There's always change. There's nothing given because of the year prior or the year prior to that. We're looking to improve each week to be efficient and understand the strengths of this team and what this team does well."
When Payton reviewed video of the New Orleans' 26-20 road loss to the New York Jets last Sunday, he was struck by how few opportunities he gave the Saints' running game, even though it had shown promise that afternoon.
The Saints finished with 41 yards rushing, but ran the ball only 13 times out of 64 plays.
"It's just paying attention," Payton said as he criticized himself. "The efficiency level we operated at last week when we ran it was pretty good, so that's something you look closely at and how the game is unfolding."
Since Payton returned from his 2012 bounty suspension, he has stressed the importance of the running game. Yet New Orleans now ranks 26th in the league in rushing, averaging 79.8 yards, heading into its Week 10 clash with Dallas in the Superdome on Sunday night.
The Saints acknowledge that the lack of a credible running game has hurt their play-action passes because defenders are less likely to bite on fake handoffs.
Brees has been sacked 20 times, and as pressure on the offensive line has mounted, so have pre-snap and holding penalties, which, in a vicious cycle, have forced the Saints into more predictable passing situations.
"We've got to start from the beginning," running back Pierre Thomas said. "Start with not jumping offsides, finding that smooth tempo, not having the delay of games and so many penalties. There's a lot of things we've got to fix on our side to get better and that's what we're doing."
Brees said he is not so much concerned by the ranking in yards per game as scoring. The Saints' points-per-game ranking also is down from most previous seasons, when they were usually in the top five.
"You can have a bunch of yards but that doesn't necessarily lead to points," Brees said. "Certainly it gives you chances, opportunities, but it doesn't guarantee it."
Right tackle Zach Strief, who was part of Payton's first draft class in 2006, said no one on New Orleans' offense is pleased with the unit's production right now, even if it is better than most of the league.
"That's a product of expectations here," Strief said. "There's nothing being said outside of here that we don't say in here. There's no more sense of urgency anywhere than in here. And if you don't think that linemen want to start running the ball better then you're crazy, because it is hard to go on the road and pass protect 55 times. It is not easy. That is the worse-case scenario for us."
Notes: Three players missed practice Thursday: S Malcolm Jenkins (knee), LB Davis Hawthorne (toe) and DE Cameron Jordan (ankle). However, Jenkins said he has been able to run off to the side and is getting close to returning. ... Those listed as limited in practice were: WR Marques Colston (knee), RG Jahri Evans (hip) and TE Jimmy Graham (foot, elbow). ... Payton commented for the first time about his decision Wednesday to place LB Jonathan Vilma on injured reserve, ending his 10th season only three days after he returned from left knee surgery to play his first game of 2013. "Obviously it is a difficult decision. He didn't have any setbacks. There is still some work to go in regards to his rehab," Payton said. "Time will tell with respect to where he goes, where we go long-term. ... He has been one of the all-timers to coach now. He is a standup guy, a guy that prepares and a guy that takes everything he has done in the film room and brings it to the field."