With Joe Vitt at controls, Mark Ingram finding groove

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (28) breaks into the open for a big gain in the 1st half of the Saints  41-0 victory over theTampa Bay Buccaneers game Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (28) breaks into the open for a big gain in the 1st half of the Saints 41-0 victory over theTampa Bay Buccaneers game Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

METAIRIE — After nearly two full seasons in the NFL, New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram finally is breaking a sweat on a weekly basis.

In fact, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner is closing in on the 1,000-yard rushing mark.

For his career.

He stands at 984 and counting in 24 games. That’s not necessarily a knock against Ingram, whom Saints officials traded up with New England to get with the 28th overall pick of the 2011 draft. Only one Saints running back has rushed for at least 1,000 yards over the last 30 games — Pierre Thomas (1,069).

Going into Sunday’s road game against the Dallas Cowboys, Ingram currently leads the Saints in rushing with 510 yards. If he stays number one, he would become the sixth different player to lead the team in rushing since coach Sean Payton took over in 2006.

In fact, no Saints’ running back has come close to reaching the 1,000-yard mark since Deuce McAllister amassed 1,057 in 2006. Thomas is the closest, rushing for a team-high 793 yards during the Super Bowl XLIV championship season of 2009.

That’s just the nature of the running back position in a high-powered offense that features $100 million quarterback Drew Brees. Players understand they need to stay on high alert and be ready when their number is called.

Otherwise, just grin and bear it.

“We have five (running) backs and a lot of great receivers and tight ends,’’ Ingram said.

“There’s only one football and you can only get it to so many people. So yeah, it’s hard to get in a rhythm sometimes with all the personnel groups we have coming in and out.’’

Of the five running backs currently on the Saints roster, Ingram has been the busiest since the return of interim coach Joe Vitt after serving a six-game suspension for his role in the bounty scandal.

With Vitt on the sideline, a greater emphasis seems to have been placed on the running game.

Consider:

  • In the first six games under interim coach Aaron Kromer, the Saints averaged a league-low 76.2 yards rushing per game. Despite that, 2010 rushing leader Chris Ivory didn’t play until Game 8. In Game 9, he supplied the most exciting run of the season to date with a 56-yard touchdown in a 31-27 upset win against Atlanta.
  • In the last eight games under Vitt, the Saints have averaged 117.6 yards rushing per game and now rank 24th league-wide at 99.9 yards per game.
  • Ingram has taken on a bigger role since Vitt’s return, rushing 81 times for 383 yards and three touchdowns in the past eight games as compared to 44 times for 127 yards and one touchdown in the first six games. In last week’s 41-0 shellacking of Tampa Bay, Ingram rushed for a season-high 90 yards and one touchdown.

During a conference call with Atlanta reporters on Nov. 7, Vitt acknowledged that Ingram and Ivory had been “under-utilized’’ at the start of the season. This week, Vitt tipped his cap to fellow coaches and players for a job well done in his absence under difficult conditions.

“I think the situations dictated what we had to do in those first early games,’’ Vitt explained.

Vitt said Ingram is playing the best football of his young career and has completely recovered from offseason knee surgery.

“I think we are finding out a lot about Mark and Mark is finding out a lot about himself,’’ Vitt said. “It’s funny; I think he is one of those backs that he gets stronger as the game goes on. I think he gets a better feel for where the cut holes are. I think he has done a real good job with ball security and is gaining confidence.

“I hand it to Mark, he has worked hard and good things have come to him. I think he is one of those backs where the more you feed him, the more he feels comfortable.”

Ivory and Thomas say they fit that mold as well.

“Coach Vitt takes a lot of pride in running the football,’’ Ingram said. “He’s an old-school guy, a smash-mouth guy and he understands that to take control of the game, you have to take control of the line of scrimmage and knock people off the ball.

“He understands that and he instills that in us.’’

Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod said Ingram’s recent performance is a reflection of the team’s re-emphasis on the run game.

“Mark is looking good,’’ Bushrod said. “He’s running hard and feeling comfortable in the offense. He has a good combination of speed, power and shiftiness. He’s a complete back. To be honest with you, we’re pretty lucky to have him on this team.’’