This was supposed to be Mark Ingram’s year, the season he quieted his critics and justified the decision by New Orleans Saints brass to make him the 28th selection in the 2011 draft.
Everything pointed to a breakout season.
In April, the Saints dealt running back Chris Ivory to the New York Jets, presumably clearing the way for Ingram to assume a bigger role in the running game. After battling injuries during his first two seasons, Ingram said he was 100 percent healthy.
Nothing, it seemed, would stop him.
Until Sunday at Tampa Bay, when the Buccaneers stopped him twice at their 1-yard line, the second time on fourth-and-goal as the Saints were trying to extend a 10-7 lead before halftime.
Now it appears Ingram may be dealing with a bigger issue. He is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals because of an injured toe. If Ingram can’t play or is limited, running back Travaris Cadet likely will play a bigger role.
Regardless of Ingram’s availability, the Saints (2-0) are expected to have a tough time running against the Cardinals, who yield 58.0 yards per game to rank second in the NFL in rushing defense. The Saints rank 24th in rushing offense, averaging 76.5 yards with Pierre Thomas (72 yards on 14 carries), Darren Sproles (48 on 15) and Ingram (31 on 17).
None has distinguished himself through two games, but Ingram has been the least impressive because of his inability to pick up tough yards. Coach Sean Payton and teammates defended Ingram this week, saying all shared in the team’s failure to score on fourth-and-goal.
“That doesn’t fall on him,’’ quarterback Drew Brees said.
“We all take credit for that,’’ center Brian de la Puente said. “We got to punch that in as a group. That’s on all of us.’’
“That’s on me,’’ Payton said. “We ended up getting a different defense than we were expecting.’’
Getting tough yards is precisely why Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis worked a trade with New England to move back into the first round and select Ingram. He had dropped from a top-20 projection in part because of a pedestrian 40-yard dash time (4.61 seconds) and vertical jump (311/2 feet) at the scouting combine and lingering injury concerns at Alabama, where he won the 2009 Heisman Trophy.
The slow 40 time threw up a red flag but didn’t dissuade the Saints, who sent a No. 1 pick in 2012 and a second-round pick in 2011 to the Patriots.
“I was surprised when they took him where they did,’’ said draft analyst Russ Lande, a former scout with the Rams and Browns and director of college scouting for The National Football Post. “Trust me, I’m not trying to second-guess Sean Payton. But to me, it was an odd choice because Payton wants an explosive, big-play offense, and that couldn’t be more the opposite of what Mark Ingram is.’’
On the plays in question against Tampa Bay, the 5-foot-8, 216-pound Ingram was stopped twice trying to get around left end.
“It seems a lot of the Saints offense is predicated on the backs getting out and making plays in space, and that’s not Ingram’s strength,’’ Lande said. “His strength is between the tackles, but even then he needs a hole, a crease. He’s not going to get it on his own.
“He’s never going to be a super effective outside runner because, if any defenders cause the play to be disrupted, he doesn’t have that burst to get it on his own.’’
Lande said Ingram probably is best suited to play in an offense where he can get 18 to 22 carries a game with a fullback in front. That’s not New Orleans; Payton employs a running-back-by-committee approach with his various offensive packages.
“The issue with Ingram is he needs that little bit of space to get where he needs to be,” Lande said. “He’s not going to make guys miss or create something where there is no initial hole. He’s a guy who needs a hole. He’s a strong runner, but I don’t think he’s the type of guy who can drive a pile backwards like a Jerome Bettis.’’
Lande said Ingram likely will never justify the trade or fulfill Saints fans’ lofty expectations. Ingram is in the third year of a fully guaranteed four-year, $7.417 million contract.
“In this day and age of the NFL where throwing the football is so much more vital to a team’s success than running it, I’m just not a believer that you take a running back in the first round unless he’s an Adrian Peterson type,’’ Lande said. “Ingram’s a solid back, but he’s not a special player.’’