New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram had never carried the ball in an NFL game as many times as he did against the Green Bay Packers in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday night.
The fourth-year pro rewarded the Saints for those 24 rushing attempts in a huge way: with a career-high 172 yards and one touchdown as New Orleans routed Green Bay 44-23 to improve to 3-4.
Ingram got 124 of his ground yards on 14 carries during the third and fourth quarters as the Saints outscored Green Bay 28-7 to blow what had been a 16-16 halftime stalemate wide open.
It was only the second time Ingram had eclipsed the 100-yard mark since entering the NFL as one of the Saints’ first-round draft picks in 2011. The only other time he had done that was during a memorable 49-17 pummeling of the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night Football in the 10th week of the 2013 season, when Ingram rushed for 145 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries.
“We were just clicking,” Ingram said afterward. “They did a great job of just getting a push off the ball and creating seams for me to run through and just be able to run hard — all credit to the line. Without them, nights like this aren’t possible.”
Saints coach Sean Payton added, “Mark had a fantastic game. ... I thought we did a good job up front giving him some seams, and he took advantage of it.”
Everyone knew the Packers — winners of four straight before they visited New Orleans — were susceptible to the run.
The Packers had gotten to 5-2 before their trip to the Crescent City in spite of a unit that was surrendering almost 148 yards per game on the ground — worse than all but one team in the NFL at the time Green Bay began preparing to play the Saints.
But that in no way should detract from Ingram’s career night, because success against that defense was no given.
He was shouldering a larger than usual workload after the Saints had ruled out veteran running back Pierre Thomas and second-year running back Khiry Robinson from facing the Packers after sustaining injuries in a 24-23 defeat at Detroit last week. It was only his second game back since fracturing his hand in Week 2 and subsequently missing three outings.
Robinson (forearm) and Thomas (rib/shoulder) had combined for 693 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns this season, a significant amount of production.
Furthermore, the Saints had also scratched veteran center Jonathan Goodwin, meaning second-year pro Tim Lelito was making his first start at that position for an offensive line that was blocking for a running game ranked slightly above average (13th) at the beginning of the week.
Ingram cared not. He tallied 48 yards on his first 10 carries of the game — all in the first half — as both the Saints and the Packers each scored a touchdown and three field goals on their four possessions up to that point in the contest.
He notched his game-long carry of 28 yards early in the third quarter, but that drive ended in apparent disaster when he was stuffed on a fourth-and-2 at Green Bay’s 43. It capped off the first non-scoring drive of the night for either team.
Yet Saints linebacker David Hawthorne intercepted Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the ensuing drive. Ingram polished off his milestone evening as the Saints scored four touchdowns the rest of the way while conceding only one TD.
The fourth of those TDs for New Orleans was by Ingram from 21 yards with 3:16 left in the game, a just reward for a player who delivered the gaudiest individual rushing performance for the Saints since Deuce McAllister ran for 184 yards in Philadelphia in 2003.
That all came as Ingram competed against Packers running back Eddie Lacy (13 carries for 59 yards and eight catches for 123 yards), his former college teammate at Alabama. Lacy is also a former Dutchtown High standout.
“I think it was good we kept running the ball,” said Ingram, who joked he wasn’t “paying attention to Eddie” and explained that New Orleans’ ground attack set up successful opportunities off fake handoffs.
“I know we scored a couple TDs and (had) a couple big plays off of play-action, so it helped — the run and pass complemented each other,” he said.
Much of the discussion about Ingram at the beginning of the season centered around the fact that the Saints declined to exercise an option on the deal he accepted from the team as a rookie that would’ve kept him under contract through 2015.
The option would’ve cost the Saints more than $5 million, and the team reasoned that did not make business sense in an NFL where clubs are perpetually trying to get cheaper and younger, especially at running back.
If Ingram has many more nights that resemble his on Sunday, that amount of money may not seem so far-fetched for the Saints or any other NFL team.
“It was,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said about Ingram’s Sunday night, “an unbelievable effort on his part.”