METAIRIE — Chris Ivory doesn’t know why he didn’t get his first chance to carry the ball until the eighth game of the season.
The Saints running back figured the best thing he could do during the first seven weeks of the season was simply stay sharp and focused, so that he could be relied upon when his number finally was called.
“I still don’t get it. I just played the patient role,” Ivory said on Wednesday after logging 10 carries for 48 yards — nearly 5 yards a carry — including a 22-yard touchdown in New Orleans 28-13 victory over Philadelphia on Monday night. “It was hard to be patient but, you know, I was. ... When they needed to count on me, I was accountable. The focus was definitely there, and like I said, once they called my number I was ready to go.”
Although the bruising 6-foot, 222-pounder made major contributions against the Eagles, Ivory cannot be sure he’ll have a more consistent role in the offense. One reason he saw more action last week was because Darren Sproles was out with a broken bone in his left hand. Sproles did not practice Wednesday and could be out again this week, but the Saints are deep at running back, with Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram also in the mix.
In recent seasons, New Orleans coaches said they believed they could never have too many good running backs because one of more of them inevitably would be too banged up to play every week, but that was not the case during the first seven weeks of this season, leaving Ivory fourth on the depth chart.
“I feel like it’s more the situation with the backs here and them trying to divvy up carries with all the guys,” Ivory said. “I don’t think it has anything to do with my talent or if you want to say lack of talent, maybe. I don’t think that’s what it is. If they keep calling my number, I’m going to be ready.”
Saints coaches never indicated any loss of confidence in Ivory, simply stating that they believed Thomas, Sproles and Ingram were the three running backs performing the best early in the season. However, the ground game was rarely a prominent part of New Orleans’ offense during the first seven games, only once accounting for more than 100 yards and four times accounting for fewer than 60 yards.
With Ivory in the lineup against Philadelphia, New Orleans rushed for 140 yards, its second-highest team total this season. And it’s not like Ivory came out of nowhere. He was New Orleans’ leading rusher as an undrafted rookie in 2010 (716 yards, 5 TDs), when he was pressed into service because of injuries to Thomas and Reggie Bush.
“We know what Chris Ivory can do. He is one of those backs that can combine power and speed and elusiveness,” Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt said. “He is doing a better job with ball security. He understands our run game. He understands some pre-snap reads now. So we like Chris. It was good to get him back involved and we are excited for him.”
Atlanta coach Mike Smith, whose team meets New Orleans in the Superdome on Sunday, said Ivory’s recent performance speaks more to New Orleans’ depth at running back than any fault with the Saints coaching staff not giving the third-year pro a chance this season until Monday.
“They are going to run the football by committee. I think if Darren (Sproles) doesn’t play, they still have three outstanding running backs that can run the football,” Smith said. “When you get the running game going, everyone knows that bodes well for the quarterback because it opens up opportunities to throw the ball down the field.”
Not surprisingly, Saints quarterback Drew Brees had plenty to say about Ivory’s re-emergence.
“It’s impressive. We have a good problem (which) is we have all these backs,” Brees said. Ivory “adds a very physical component. You see his size and he’s an extremely powerful running back. I think you saw his explosiveness and ability on that (touchdown) run, his ability to hit that hole and then be by the safety. He’s a rare combination of speed and power.”
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