TEMPE, Ariz. — When it comes to Darren Sproles’ job description, the word ‘running’ in running back is used rather loosely.
In 31 appearances with the New Orleans Saints, whom he signed with in July 2011, the nine-year veteran has been a bigger threat for Sean Payton in the passing game (173 receptions) than in the run game (150 carries). Each of the last two seasons, Sproles has led the league among running backs in receiving yards (1,377), receiving touchdowns (14) and total targets (215).
At 5-foot-6, Sproles, possesses an elusive combination — extremely low center of gravity, notable strength for his size and breakaway speed — that makes him a potent option for quarterback Drew Brees.
Combine that with the threat both tight end Jimmy Graham and wide receiver Marques Colston pose on intermediate and deep routes, and it’s easy to see why Sproles creates matchup nightmares when paired one-on-one against linebackers, defensive backs or defensive ends.
So how do the Arizona Cardinals plan to stop one of Brees’ primary weapons when they square off against the Saints Sunday in New Orleans?
Well for one, it helps to have linebacker John Abraham on their side. The 35-year-old played seven seasons in the NFC South as a member of the Atlanta Falcons before coming to Arizona, so he has plenty of information on Sproles from their recent encounters.
“He’s fast and a jukey guy,” Abraham said. “He’s hard to see sometimes, Especially on screen plays. Because you’re trying to rush the passer and get to Drew [Brees], and you really can’t see [Sproles] sometimes. When he gets the ball, he’s really explosive.”
How do defend, though, against something — or someone — that isn’t easily visible?
“Knowing where he is at all times,” said Abraham. “He can do screen plays from anywhere on the field, and he can take it the distance from anywhere on the field. “Our biggest thing is knowing where he is when he’s on the field, whether he’s lined up in the backfield or if he’s lined up in slot or maybe outside the X. That’s our biggest thing.”
Defensive end Matt Shaughnessy, who faced Sproles four times when the two were members of the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers respectively in 2009-2010, echoed Abraham’s sentiments adding that the Cardinals need “to make good tackles and get him down, because as long as he’s down he won’t be able to get all those yards after the catch.”
The method of attack seems pretty cut and dry, if only it were that simple for Arizona.
In addition to playing on the offensive side of the football, Sproles serves as New Orleans’ primary kick and punt returner.
While he hasn’t had much of an opportunity to leave his imprint in the return game so far in 2013 — two kickoff returns for 46 yards and five punt returns for five yards — the danger is imminent any time Sproles has the opportunity get his hands on the football.
But Cardinals punter Dave Zastudil, who has had seven of his nine punts this season downed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, admitted that while he’s no stranger to Sproles’ knack for the big play, nothing has changed in approach-wise since last Sunday’s 25-21 over the Detroit Lions.
“In this day in age, you almost have to be worried about any punt returner,” said Zastudil. “I mean everybody is good. Everybody is talented, especially Darren. He’s been doing it a long time. He’s quick, and he’s shifty.
“But, it’s not going to change my game plan. I’m going to go in confident and do the things I know we can do. I believe in our coverage team. We have to be aware of him, but I also have know that we have to be aware of what we can control.”
When asked about the one thing he can control — kicking it to or away from Sproles — Zastudil was a little less willing to show his hand.
“I’m definitely going to try and get good hang time,” said Zastudil. “I’m going try and go directional, try to make sure he doesn’t hurt us in the game. We have a game plan, and we’re going to stick to it.”
Sproles’ only prior meeting against the Cardinals came back in Oct. 2010 when he was still with the Chargers. In a 41-10 rout over Arizona, the former Kansas State standout rushed for 17 yards on six carries but failed to record a single reception — a feat that has only occurred once since that contest.