GLENDALE, Ariz. — Mark Ingram spent the summer making it clear that he’s more than just a bruiser between the tackles.
Ingram, whose father was an NFL receiver, has always had an unflinching belief in his ability as a pass catcher out of the backfield, even though he rarely got chances to showcase the skill during the first half of his career in New Orleans. Ingram backed up everything he said in Sunday’s 31-19 loss to Arizona. Facing off against a Cardinals defense full of talent in the secondary that largely took away the wide receivers, the Saints rode Ingram and fellow running back Khiry Robinson in the passing game to the the tune of 13 catches and 149 yards.
“I thought both of our backs played hard,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We were able to get underneath them with some screens and get some outside screens.”
Arizona’s secondary, led by All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson and omnipresent safety Tyrann Mathieu, largely took away the intermediate and deep passing game from the New Orleans wide receivers, save for a 63-yard catch-and-run by Willie Snead and a 29-yard ball to Brandin Cooks after he’d beaten Peterson in coverage.
The Saints had several vertical plays in the game plan, according to Drew Brees, but when he got the call, he rarely had the look he wanted.
Brees looked to his running backs instead, including using a screen game that gave the Arizona defense fits in the first half.
“One of the things that we saw others have some success with a year ago was some of the misdirection,” Payton said. “We had a few of those different plays in for this plan.”
Ingram made the biggest play. With the Saints trailing 24-16 and needing a score in the fourth quarter, Ingram slipped out of the backfield, took a short throw from Brees and raced 59 yards down the right sideline behind the block of Brandon Coleman, who rode Arizona safety Rashard Johnson all the way down the field.
And the fourth-year back, who has never caught more than 29 passes in any of his four seasons in the league, was reliable throughout the rest of the game. Targeted nine times by Brees, Ingram responded with eight catches for 98 yards.
“He had that huge play down the sideline, great effort by him and Brandon Coleman to block that guy 50 yards down the field,” Brees said. “I’ve got a lot of trust in Mark, and I think more and more opportunities will come his way, in the passing game as well, as we diversify what we’re doing.”
Robinson, whose pass-catching ability also remained something of a mystery given that he had six catches in two seasons, also made his fair share of plays in the passing game as well, catching five passes for 51 yards, including a 22-yarder on another screen. New Orleans kept coming back to the screen, but until the fourth quarter, most worked behind an offensive line that got out and mowed down Cardinals in the open field, opening running lanes for both Ingram and Robinson.
The only hiccup came in the red zone. On a screen to Robinson, the Saints got two offensive linemen on two Cardinals defenders, but Robinson bumped into one of his blockers, and a play that looked like a touchdown came up short.
But the key is that even without satellite back C.J. Spiller, who is expected to return next week, the Saints’ running backs found a way to be effective on an afternoon when a stiff Arizona front seven limited Ingram and Robinson to a combined 17 carries for 43 yards. Even fullback Austin Johnson, who made just two catches in his first season with New Orleans, tied that total, making two catches for five yards, including a key first down on 3rd-and-short out of the backfield.
Once Spiller returns, the Saints will have one of the NFL’s most potent backfields in the passing game.
“All of these guys can do some things, and let’s kind of find ways to utilize them all,” Brees said. “I think there’s a balance to it, and it’s something you discover as you go along.”
Ingram’s glad he finally got a chance to prove what he’s been saying all along.