Ingram set the tone in the Saints win at Philadelphia

The new Mark Ingram set the tone for the Saints’ landmark wild-card win at Philadelphia on the first offensive snap.

Taking a handoff, he ran to his right, made a quick, decisive cut to the inside of charging cornerback Bradley Fletcher, eluded the grasp of linebacker Mychal Kendricks and drove safety Patrick Chung back for an extra 4 yards before going out of bounds at the New Orleans 44 to finish a 17-yard gain.

It was his fourth-longest rush of the year, which he topped with an 18-yard effort on the Saints’ go-ahead touchdown drive early in the third quarter.

By the time Shayne Graham kicked the winning field goal, Ingram had the second-most carries (18) in his three-year career for the second-most yards (97).

This is the same guy who drew groans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome every time he touched the ball earlier in the year?

Ingram insists it is exactly the same guy.

“I’ve always been confident in myself,” he said. “I know what I can do. I’m confident in my abilities. It’s just the matter of having an opportunity to get those touches and show what I could do.”

A lightning rod for criticism among Saints fans, Ingram rarely has put on electrifying performances in his three-year NFL career after winning the Heisman Trophy at Alabama in 2010. New Orleans traded into the first round to snag him, and the return on that investment was an oft-injured running back who in his rookie year averaged more than a yard less per carry (3.9) than Pierre Thomas (5.1) and three yards less per carry than Darren Sproles (6.9).

Hesitant and unhealthy, Ingram looked slow and sluggish.

Publicly, his nadir came when he failed to score on two attempts from the 1-yard line at Tampa Bay with the New Orleans leading 10-7 right before halftime in September. The Saints, who took a field goal off the board after a Bucs penalty on fourth-and-goal, turned the ball over on downs in a game they eventually won 16-14.

Ingram even drew criticism from Tulane coach Curtis Johnson, a former Saints assistant.

“I’m going to say this — that’s on Ingram to get that one in,” Johnson said when defending coach Sean Payton’s decision. “If you get that in, then the game is over in the first half.”

If Ingram lost the public, he never lost the locker room. His teammates saw a hard worker who needed more help around him.

“His preparation hasn’t changed,” tackle Zach Strief said. “It’s not like he’s trying real hard and before he wasn’t. The fact of the matter is the running game as a whole is becoming more consistent and that’s showing in his numbers. He has been that way the whole year. We have a tremendous amount of confidence in him.”

Statistics indicate Ingram’s turnaround started earlier than anyone realized.

In the first 17 games he played, including a dismal stretch at the start of 2012, he averaged 3.6 yards per carry. He rushed for 608 yards on 169 attempts.

In the 21 games since then — beginning with a seven-carry, 44-yard performance against Philadelphia in November of last year — he has averaged 4.6 yards. His totals are 205 carries for 951 yards.

“He’s running with a passion,” center Brian de la Puente said. “He’s running with the mindset that he’s going to get yards. It’s fun blocking for somebody who’s going to get that extra few yards and the end and not go down on first contact.

“That’s what I see in practice every day. I see it in the weight room. I see it in the offseason, so I knew it was just a matter of time before had that breakout game. I couldn’t be happier for him.”

Ingram is not all the way there yet. When the Saints set up Graham for his game-winner against the Eagles, undrafted free agent Khiry Robinson carried three times for 22 yards while Ingram managed 2 yards on two attempts.

Robinson and quarterback Drew Brees had the last four touches as the clock ran down to three seconds.

Still, the Saints would not have been in position to win without Ingram.

“He’s been running real well,” Payton said. “I liked his ball security the other night. Those weren’t always easy yards. I’m pleased with how he’s playing. He’s had a handful of games now toward the latter part of the season where he’s been exceptional.”

The next step is doing it in Seattle, which held Ingram to 22 yards on eight carries while clobbering New Orleans 34-7 last month. The Saints will need much more production on the ground to reverse that outcome this Saturday in the divisional round of the playoffs.

An interesting fact about the Seahawks — the 3.9 yards per carry they allowed in the regular season was higher than Philadelphia’s 3.8.

“It’s not too often you get a second chance,” Ingram said. “We’re all excited about it. All of were hoping we’d have a chance to go back up there and see them again. We go what we asked for, so we have to bring our ‘A’ game.”