NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Tacklers buckled under the force of his stiff-arm, bounced off his lowered shoulders and thick, churning legs, or lost their grip on his kicking feet.

Others couldn’t even get a hand on Deuce McAllister as he danced around them and accelerated upfield.

“I’m pretty good for an older guy,” McAllister, in his sixth season but still only 27, said with a confident grin.

He also is pretty good for someone coming back from reconstructive knee surgery, often a tricky proposition for running backs, who tend to take more of a pounding than quarterbacks or receivers.

If no one makes a fuss over how strong he’s looked this season, the low-key country guy from central Mississippi appears content to continue chewing up yardage with quiet satisfaction.

“People are going to make their opinion and comments in the way they choose,” McAllister said. “It’s something I can’t control.”

For several years, McAllister has been the face of the New Orleans Saints, his No. 26 jersey worn by fans throughout the region. This season, however, the more popular is the No. 25 worn by flashy rookie Reggie Bush, the Heisman Trophy winner whose selection by the Saints in last spring’s draft set off an impromptu citywide party for a full weekend.

Bush once again grabbed the headlines in last Sunday’s 24-21 victory over Tampa Bay with his first NFL touchdown, a game-winning 65-yard punt return late in the fourth quarter.

“He can have it,” a still grinning McAllister said without a moment’s hesitation when asked about Bush stealing the spotlight.

In that same game, McAllister rushed for 123 yards on 15 carries, an average of 8.2 yards per run. His bruising, 57-yard run set up a field goal. His 24-yard touchdown, during which he danced out of trouble in the backfield, slipped two tackles across the line of scrimmage and then cut sharply into the open field, gave New Orleans its first lead.

Following the game, McAllister was coy about the condition of his right knee, which still requires treatment to keep the swelling down after practice and games.

He calls himself “game ready.”

“It doesn’t matter,” McAllister said. “I just try to go out there and play whether I’m 100 percent or 85 percent.”

Sharing carries with Bush, McAllister has only once broken the 100-yard mark in a game this season. But he has averaged 4.8 yards per carry through five weeks. He also has a team-leading four touchdowns for the Saints, who are off to a surprising 4-1 start and in first place in the NFC South.

“I knew coming here he was a Pro Bowl running back and a guy that’s respected throughout the league,” new Saints coach Sean Payton said. “The big thing is: How’s he coming off of a season with a knee injury? I’ve been real pleased with everything I’ve seen, his work ethic. He’s got his weight right where it needs to be. He’s got his strength. He’s playing with intensity. He’s practicing well. …

“He played fantastic.”

Going by statistics, opposing defenses might be wise to give equal attention to McAllister and Bush, because Payton is balancing the pair’s work evenly. McAllister has 79 carries and seven receptions for 433 total yards. Bush has 54 rushes and a league-leading 34 receptions for 420 total yards.

But Bush, who lines up all over the field as either a runner or receiver, seems to be more distracting to defenders. Payton has used him as a decoy, sometimes freezing linebackers on fake handoffs to Bush during several of McAllister’s runs.

“Everyone focuses on Reggie, but at the end of the day No. 26 is a hell of a football player,” Tampa Bay cornerback Brian Kelly said.

McAllister said the fakes to Bush have made it easier for him to read the defensive pursuit and find open running lanes.

“I’ll take some easy runs if that’s what they’re going to give me,” McAllister said. “The defenses out there, they respect my talents enough. But obviously Reggie has talent as well, so they’re definitely going to pay attention to him.

“So give me a second or two and let me see the reads and I think I can make some plays.”

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