Let no one ever question Mark Ingram’s toughness.
After fracturing his left hand the third time he touched the ball in Sunday’s 26-24 defeat at Cleveland on Sunday, the New Orleans Saints running back had 11 more touches, gaining 90 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown before the game was finished.
But the Saints (0-2) now know they’ll have to do without that toughness for a while after coach Sean Payton on Wednesday revealed that Ingram required two screws to be surgically placed above a thumb that was broken and displaced.
And four days before facing the Vikings (1-1) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in search of their first victory this year, the Saints insisted they have players who can keep up the ground production they had and sense the possibilities Ingram’s absence presents.
“I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for all three of our backs,” quarterback Drew Brees said, referring to Khiry Robinson, Pierre Thomas and Travaris Cadet. “All of those guys are in a position to be able to step up and take on those reps and kind of fill that role.”
Having rushed for 11 yards on his first two carries, Ingram hurt his hand after he caught a 3-yard screen pass with about 5:23 to go in the first quarter in Cleveland, Payton said.
Ingram shook his left hand as he got up using only his feet. Then he marched back to the huddle for the next snap. Before the game ended, he carried nine more times for 72 yards, including a goal-line plunge that helped give the Saints a 24-23 lead in the fourth quarter. He caught two more passes for 18 yards.
“That shows a warrior out there,” Thomas said Wednesday about Ingram, who is leading the Saints in carries (24), rushing yards (143) and touchdowns (three) this season. “Just to fight through something like that ... is impressive. It shows how much he really wants to win.”
Yet the Saints determined Ingram wouldn’t be able to play through the injury long-term, so he went under the knife. He’ll be week-to-week until the bone and surgical wound heal properly, Payton said.
Payton wouldn’t rule out Ingram beyond Sunday’s game against the Vikings, whose run defense is 16th in the NFL heading into Week 3. Nonetheless, until Ingram’s return, Payton said he is comfortable entrusting second-year pro Robinson with an increase in carries.
Robinson — No. 2 on the Saints with 14 carries for 59 yards and a touchdown — has displayed patience in finding seams to burst through, whether they form between the guards and tackles, center and guards, or tackles and tight ends on either flank of the offensive line.
He certainly deserves his share of the credit for a Saints running attack that for now has gained the NFL’s fifth-most yards (313). He’s pleased his coaches by demonstrating a better knowledge of defensive fronts and pass protection packages than what he had as an undrafted rookie in 2013.
“He’s further along here in year two with the whole game,” Payton said of Robinson, who in his first season had two touchdowns, one of which was in a loss in the divisional round of the playoffs at Seattle. “He’ll be fired up for the opportunity, and he’s already been a big part of our plan.”
An eight-year pro, Thomas hasn’t been called upon to carry the ball as much as Ingram and Robinson, who was unavailable in the period that the Saints locker room was open to the media Wednesday.
Thomas has 10 rushes for 47 yards and has been utilized much more in the aerial game, where he has nine catches for 74 yards. Third-year pro Cadet, the Saints’ primary kickoff returner through two weeks, hasn’t carried the ball and has only recorded a 5-yard reception.
Thomas said he and Cadet are prepared to do more work from handoffs if required while Ingram is on the mend.
“Every last one of us as running backs knows ... how to play wide out if we have to ... or be in the backfield,” remarked Thomas, who’s the Saints’ all-time leader in regular-season receiving yards (2,304) at his position. “We ... make sure that each and every one of us knows what to do at that point.”