In Week 1 of the preseason, against what should be a very good St. Louis Rams defense once the games start to matter, Ingram rolled, showcasing the kind of balance, athleticism and power that made him a collegiate star. Ingram's Saints ended up winning the game 26-24.
That's 8 carries, 83 yards and a TD for #Saints Mark Ingram. Another 5 carries, 23 yards and a TD for Khiry Robinson. P.Thomas sitting out— Mike Triplett (@MikeTriplett) August 9, 2014
At just 24 years of age, it's difficult to imagine writing Ingram off already, but after three years as a mostly ineffective back—unable to outpace a number of low-round and undrafted running backs—it wouldn't exactly be surprising if the Saints and their fans had moved on from the former Alabama star.
Yet, in an offseason where quarterback Drew Brees and the offense lost a number of players that once made this offense tick, Ingram actually stuck around and appears to be ticketed for a big role in a more-balanced Saints offense.
Owed almost $1.4 million this year and a free agent in 2015, Ingram has all sorts of motivation to be the back the Saints thought they were getting when they selected him with the 28th overall pick just a few years ago.
Out with the Old Gives Ingram the Chance to Step Up
Admittedly, the Saints aren't known as much of a rushing team.
Last season, the Sean Payton-led offense only ran the ball 391 times (26th in the NFL) while ranking top-five overall in passing attempts. This team knows where its bread is buttered, and that's with Brees and that incredible passing attack.
Still, last season wasn't necessarily the ideal, and in 2011 (right after Ingram was drafted), the Saints ranked 20th in the league in rushing attempts, went 13-3 and won a playoff game. Better yet, in 2009 when the Saints won that little Super Bowl thing, the Saints were seventh overall.
Running the ball may not be something the Saints are known for, but it's certainly something they seem to be interested in dabbling in.
This season is a perfect time to double down on the rushing attack.
The obvious story here is that former running back Darren Sproles is now in Philadelphia, and that could mean more snaps for other backs. Honestly, though, that's a bit of a lazy depth chart-centric way of looking at a much more complex Saints offense. Though Sproles and Ingram may have the same position name, they played vastly different roles.
Who is the Saints best running back?
Rather, it's the loss of Sproles as a receiver and the compounded loss of receiver Lance Moore (now with the Pittsburgh Steelers) that will force the Saints to re-think some of the shorter-to-intermediate, timing routes that have been a hallmark of Brees' career.
According to Pro Football Focus' "time in pocket" metric, Brees ranked 11th overall last season (paid link) with 2.72 seconds between snap to throw. His rating on passes attempted less than 2.5 seconds after the snap was 77.5 percent while over that 2.5 second mark, his completion percentage dropped to a paltry 59.0.
Worst yet, when holding the ball more than 2.5 seconds, Brees was sacked 37 times (tied for 10th by that measure). When he was able to get the ball out in less time—roughly to "two Mississippi"—he wasn't sacked once.
This brings up another difference on the Saints depth chart this season—the lack of center Brian De La Puente and left tackle Charles Brown. Now, I'm not nearly as apoplectic as some about the loss of two players I considered notoriously average, but both were familiar faces and capable (albeit not overwhelming) pass blockers.
The Saints have struggled to move the ball down the field, and when they do so, it almost always involves establishing some sense of run game first and then using play action.
Mark Ingram's footwork is what makes him the best back on the #Saints roster. Vision + Feet = Chunk Yards— Emory Hunt (@FBallGameplan) August 9, 2014
This is where a motivated Ingram comes in.
According to Mike Triplett of ESPN.com, Ingram is talking the talk in anticipation of walking the walk:
I was versatile in college and just want to transfer that to the NFL. I want to be an every-down back, not just to be a short-yardage or base back. I want to be able to run out of the gun, run in nickel, catch screen passes, pick up pass protection. I just want to do everything I can to contribute from a football player—not just a running back.
I just want to do everything I can to be the best player I can be to help us win games and win a championship. That’s my No. 1 goal.
Now, many have already written off Ingram and are looking for another year out of 29-year-old Pierre Thomas or Khiry Robinson (a 2013 undrafted free agent). Maybe the best question, though, is: Why not Ingram?
This isn't anything against Thomas, Robinson or Travaris Cadet for that matter. The simple fact of the matter is the Saints drafted Ingram for specifically this purpose, and he's still the physical specimen and tough runner they once drafted.
If anything, with a crowded stable of running backs and an offense that seemed disinterested at times in establishing Ingram as a workhorse back, Ingram looked lost more than he looked ineffective. This isn't making excuses for Ingram, just admitting that he has a much clearer role in 2014 and thus a much clearer opportunity.
Saints Defense Should Give Ingram Better Opportunities
Speaking of opportunities, an even better Saints defense should enhance the Saints ability to run the football.
Sometimes fans and media fall into the "chicken or the egg" paradox when it comes to toting the rock. Establish the run, they say, and keep the ball out of the other team's hands. Then, the defense doesn't have to work so hard!
Makes sense, but it's not the only way to skin that cat.
It also isn't in the DNA of the Saints.
No, for the Saints, it's another road: Crush an opponent with the passing game (complemented by a running attack to set up the play action) and then stop them from even thinking of scoring with a blitz-heavy, ridiculously effective defense. Then, sometime in the third quarter, send in the running game akin to a baseball team sending in their closer.
Teams that run more tend to win football games, but correlation doesn't always equal causation and the corollary statement is also true: teams that win football games are able to run more.
Here's the dirty little secret about the Saints—their defense is incredible.
Saints DC Rob Ryan doesn't get enough credit. N.O. boasted the No. 4 scoring defense in the league last year and ranked fourth with 49 sacks— Ira Kaufman (@IKaufmanTBO) August 4, 2014
Fox Sports' Knox Bardeen (then with Bleacher Report) wrote about how the tide may be shifting from casual fans defining the Saints only by their potent offense:
This New Orleans defense has grown by leaps and bounds in just over a calendar year. Most people who look at the success of the Saints, and the team’s potential, point toward their high-flying offense, and it’s true, quarterback Drew Brees will have to continue to carve up defenses for the Saints to make a deep playoff run.
But if this team can push all the way to the Super Bowl, this defense will have to be a weapon, too. And all the pieces are in place to do just that.
This is not me (or Knox) saying that the Saints have the ability to become a top-tier defense. This is a clarion call that the Rob Ryan-led unit is already there. The further maturation of Kenny Vaccaro and Akiem Hicks along with the addition of Jairus Byrd should only push the Saints D further into the NFL's rarefied air of well-respected defenses.
|Cameron Jordan||3-4 DE||26.8||4|
|Junior Galette||3-4 OLB||8.9||12|
|Akiem Hicks||3-4 DE||2.1||21|
Pro Football Focus
Ryan is one of the best defensive minds in the league and the Saints have continually done their best in recent years to hand him players at every level that he can use.
With a defense ready to get the ball at the end of games and an offense that is ready to hand Ingram the ball to set up their passing game, there's little reason why 2014 can't give us the chance to reevaluate the talented running back in a whole new light.