Vargas: Mark Ingram, Saints running game show early promise

ST. LOUIS — Saints running back Mark Ingram headed into the down period between the 2013 and 2014 NFL seasons on a definite high note. Ingram had averaged 5.6 yards an attempt on 89 carries for 501 yards and two touchdowns over the previous 11 games, two of which were in the playoffs.

Yet, as training camp preparations for the Saints’ upcoming campaign ramped up at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia in late July, the questions persisted among fans and in the media: Could Ingram avoid a slow start like the one that in 2013 limited him to a paltry 31 yards on 17 carries before a toe injury in Week 2 sidelined him for the next five games?

He says, “Absolutely,” if the Saints’ 26-24 victory over the Rams at the Edward Jones Dome on Friday is any indication.

Ingram needed to be handed the ball just eight times to gain 83 yards and punch in a touchdown that momentarily helped give New Orleans a 16-14 lead late in the first half. That translated to 10.4 yards per carry, a devastating figure Ingram reached after notching a run of 19 yards and two for 22 (one of which was his score with 2:37 to go in the second quarter).

“We just wanted to give ... the team confidence in the run game — that we could go out there and be physical and be smash-mouthed and pound it on anybody,” Ingram said at his locker afterward. “It was good to get off to a fast start.”

It’s important to not overstate dominant performances in the preseason, especially early ones featuring inexperienced backups as opponents. But the circumstances under which Ingram delivered his deserve some merit.

With veteran running back Pierre Thomas a late scratch, Ingram was not operating behind anything resembling the offensive line that should be in front of him and the rest of his mates in the backfield once New Orleans’ regular season kicks off in Atlanta on Sept. 7.

His five-time Pro Bowl right guard (Jahri Evans) and two-time Pro Bowl left guard (Ben Grubbs) did not dress out, presumably because of injuries, though the Saints haven’t delved into details.

In Grubbs’ and Evans’ place were left guard Senio Kelemete and right guard Marcel Jones, 2013 Saints practice squad members who are entering their third years in the NFL. Kelemete has appeared in one regular-season game and Jones in none.

The most experienced starter on the interior of New Orleans’ offensive line was center Tim Lelito. Signed as an undrafted rookie in 2013 by the Saints, Lelito had two starts at right guard in place of an injured Evans before being tasked this preseason to compete for the first-string center job against 13-year veteran Jonathan Goodwin.

Ingram at least had Terron Armstead and Zach Strief, virtual locks to start at left and right tackle, respectively. That was certainly a boost, especially Armstead, who’s played throughout camp as if he has more experience than his four starts as a rookie third-round draft pick in 2013 (two in the regular season and two in the playoffs).

Ingram picked up 30 of his yards on the first series of the game running toward Armstead. Meanwhile, it was with Armstead and Strief in that Ingram’s fellow running back Khiry Robinson (five carries) tallied up 22 of his 23 yards as well as his touchdown. Yet even that was only for two of the game’s series, only for one of which Ingram was handed the ball. While the Saints subsequently rotated in Goodwin, who aided them in winning Super Bowl XLIV, they rested Armstead and Strief to shuffle in guys like Jason Weaver, Bryce Harris and Thomas Welch.

Weaver has no regular-season appearances to his name. Harris has 18 with the Saints, but only two were starts. Welch has one start, and it wasn’t with the Saints.

The patched-together line, however, was more than up for its assignment.

“They went out there and executed — they’ve been working their butt of at practice,” Ingram said. “The line did a great job of creating seams for us to run through and holes for us to run though.”

Ingram sniffed enough of them out and burst through enough tackles to rack up 53 yards on his five remaining carries. His last one saw him weave his way around and through the Rams’ pursuit for a score.

Prior to the start of training camp, much of the dialogue around Ingram involved the Saints’ decision to not pick up a fifth-year option on his contract. It would’ve cost New Orleans more than $5 million to do that, and the team implied that wouldn’t have been a sound business decision as it concerned a running back who’s averaged a pedestrian 118 carries and 487.3 ground yards in three regular seasons so far.

Nonetheless, the team said it hopes Ingram has a great year and lands another contract either in or outside New Orleans.

It’s very early, but the way he ended 2013 and began this preseason, Ingram seems poised as ever to fulfill that hope.

“Mark just seems so hungry, like he’s starving to have that break out,” Armstead said. “It’s safe to say he picked up exactly where he left off — and maybe another step to it.”