Why Pierre Thomas Needs to Be Focal Point of Saints Backfield

Murf Baldwin@@MurfBaldwinContributor ISeptember 18, 2013

Sep 8, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Pierre Thomas (23) against the Atlanta Falcons during the first half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

As much as I've tried to fight it, I'm now in agreement that the Mark Ingram experiment should officially be over for the New Orleans Saints. The perception that he's a scheme misfit—and a disappointing talent—may only be superseded by his lack of production. 

As a first-round pick (28th overall) in 2011, Ingram arrived with about as much fanfare as a single player could possibly generate (outside of Tim Tebow). As a star—and multiple award winner—for SEC rival the University of Alabama, most fans in Louisiana initially couldn't get over that he'd be now be running the ball for the "Black & Gold."

But once he put on a Saints uniform, the disdain seemed to dissolve. Well, until he actually played a game.

Somewhere between his trip from Tuscaloosa to New Orleans, Ingram misplaced his tenacity, agility, power and vision. In his three seasons in the NFL, he has routinely looked like a shell of his former self. A myriad of factors could be pointed to that helps explain such a fall from grace.

It's a widely known fact that Ingram is a power back—or was one—who needs a hefty number of carries to get into a groove. The Saints run a scheme based on versatility. As such, they look for skill-position players who can be efficient in a minimal role.

Scouting-wise, Ingram is not a good fit, to say the least. Coming in on the heels of Reggie Bush (now of the Detroit Lions), another perceived bust at running back, Ingram was hyper-evaluated, to put it mildly.

After a disappointing start to his career, Ingram was touted prior to this season as being a possible breakout player in 2013. If the first two games are any indication, Ingram may end up being a bigger disappointment than Bush.

It's been speculated that his performance in the Week 2 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers may have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

With under two minutes left in the second quarter—on a 2nd-and-goal—the Saints called a perfect play (flip 90) to get Ingram matched up in a one-on-one situation with a defensive back.

Right away the play develops as it's drawn up. Tight end Jimmy Graham gets the seal block on the weak-side linebacker who is scraping towards the play. This effectively puts Ingram one-on-one with safety Dashon Goldson with a ton of space to operate.

In the third frame—bottom left corner—you see the decision that separates Ingram from authentic No. 1 backs. Instead of attempting to beat Goldson to the outside, he chops his feet in an attempt to elude Goldson.

If Ingram were to continue to go outside of Goldson, he would give Goldson less of a target to hit. But notice this; Ingram is carrying the ball in his right arm. If he has the ball in his left arm—as we all were taught beginning in grade school—his right arm would be free for a stiff-arm or some other power move.

Additionally, if Ingram was going to cut it back to the inside, chopping his feet should be the last thing that should be implemented. In that situation you want to give the defender a hard jab step to the outside (with the left foot), and your subsequent step should then be to the inside. Chopping your feet slows your momentum and forces you to run upright. 

This should've been the last image of Ingram as the featured back in a Saints uniform, Ingram (5'9", 215 lbs) being stood up at the point of attack by Goldson (6'2", 200 lbs), showing that he's devoid of power, agility and instincts.  

But as we all know, Ingram got another chance on fourth down when he once again failed—miserably! 

When Ingram was drafted, Chris Ivory (now of the New York Jets), Bush and Pierre Thomas were already on the roster. Bush was let go in favor of scatback Darren Sproles. This left Ivory, Ingram and Thomas to share the load on early downs.

A rotation of Ivory, Sproles (or Bush) and Thomas could be considered the best in the league, the addition of Ingram was considered overkill. The Saints had more pressing needs than trading up in the draft to acquire a player at a position with an abundance of talent. 

If you're looking for a solid all-around back, look no further than Thomas. He's not the flashiest of players, but he also has no weaknesses. Anyone who closely follows NFL football understands that Thomas is virtually the most underrated player in the league.

Being overlooked is nothing new for Thomas. In college, at the University of Illinois, Thomas was a part of a pretty potent one-two punch with current Arizona Cardinal Rashard Mendenhall. Despite the success Thomas went undrafted in 2007.

After joining the Saints, Thomas made an immediate impact as a kick returner and third-down back. With each season his role amplified and his production followed. Although he put up eye-popping numbers, Thomas was never considered the featured back.

Well, now's the time.

At 28 years old, Thomas is just now entering his prime. He should be provided the opportunity to garner over 250 touches split among carries, receptions and kick returns. There's probably not another back in the league that fits the Saints scheme any better, so why not use his attributes to the team's advantage?

The Saints employ a zone-blocking scheme that requires patience and vision, two characteristics that Ingram seems to have lost in his transition from college to the pros. Ingram often runs into the back of his linemen due to the fact that he runs like he's shot out of a cannon.

Conversely, Thomas is smooth, shifty and surprisingly powerful (5'11", 215 lbs). His ability to glide in and out of traffic while finishing with a blow is uncanny. He allows for the cutback lanes to appear and then presses them.

He has some of the best hands a running back could ever possess, and is the very best back in the league in the screen game. You'll rarely see him tackled by the first man, and he routinely falls forward after contact. He's simply the complete opposite of Ingram.

If this change in rotation were to take place, preseason star Khiry Robinson would fill Thomas' former role, while Ingram fills up the Gatorade bottles on the bench.

Darren Sproles would be used a little more sparingly—which would probably be in his best interests at this point in his career.

For the Saints to maximize their passing attack, the running game needs to be a lot more efficient. Featuring Thomas would a major step in a positive direction.

But let's be real, Coach Payton will more than likely stick with Ingram in an attempt to justify drafting him and letting Ivory go. 

I'm beginning to think Ingram has uncompromising pictures of Payton in Atlanta Falcons underwear...   

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