NEW ORLEANS, NOV. 15 -- Craig "Ironhead" Heyward had used his 260 pounds to full advantage. He'd just rushed for 155 yards against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, mostly punishing runs that recalled greatness past -- but not the recent past.

In 2 1/2 years with New Orleans, the idea went that the Saints' No. 1 draft pick in 1988 had been more of an asset to the city's restaurants than to his team. No more.

Against Tampa Bay, he ran over defenders just like Earl Campbell used to do. He plowed through tacklers like Larry Csonka once did. He dodged people like the idea never occured to him.

Saints guard Jim Dombrowski said it best: "He's not going to out-juke a lot of people. His forte' is running over a lot of guys."

Saints quarterback Steve Walsh compared Heyward to someone with whom he previously worked. "One of the cooks I used to work with, he liked to eat a lot," Walsh said. "That's who 'Head' reminds me of. The guy could move in the kitchen too."

A couple of weeks ago, Heyward was a joke of another sort in many minds -- a bust indicative of why the Saints got off to a 2-5 start. When he rushed for 21 yards on three carries against Detroit on Oct. 28, it was the most yards he had gained in one game since getting 47 against the New York Jets on Oct. 15, 1989. He had not had more than three carries or four yards in any of the first six games this season.

"It's hard to be real productive when you don't carry it much," Heyward said after the Lions game.

Unexpectedly given the football two weeks ago in Cincinnati, Heyward's first carry was for 39 yards. The run more than doubled his '90 total. He finished with 122 yards on 19 carries, his first 100-yard day in two seasons.

The Saints, who rushed for more than 200 yards in each game, have a 4-5 record and are suddenly back as contenders for an NFC playoff berth. Suddenly, Heyward is a force. The Saints offense has even picked up a name, "Ground Round," a tribute to a man a teammate once compared to Buddah.

Heyward's major problem since being drafted out of Pittsburgh in 1988 has been his weight. Reports had him threatening 300 pounds the last couple of offseasons. Coach Jim Mora, in a classic Freudian slip, once called him "a whale of a blocker."

Heyward's previously grumpy attitude has changed with his increased role. "I'm content, as happy as I've ever been here . . . If they give me the ball, I'll be more than happy to run it."

The Saints coaches saw something in film study that led them to think the two-back set would work against the Bengals. With Dalton Hilliard out with a knee injury, Rueben Mayes and Heyward were the two backs. Mayes rushed for 115 yards. For the first time in 14 years, two Saints had rushed for 100 yards in a game.

With Heyward in a featured role, the Saints are less dependent on Walsh, who was acquired from Dallas for three high draft choices in late September. Walsh has thrown just 30 passes in the last two games. He has not been intercepted or sacked the last two weeks.

"We're blocking and executing very well now," Dombrowski said. "And when you see people like 'Head' running with a lot of determination and breaking tackles . . . it gets you gassed, no question about it."