Photos: 49ers vs. Saints, pregame and game action _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (22) picks up yardage against the San Francisco 49ers during the fourth quarter Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The 49ers won in overtime, 27-24.

Mark Ingram faced a semi-circle of sportswriters and videographers at his locker in the Saints’ training facility Thursday when he acknowledged times were as they’d never been for him in the NFL.

He had just averaged 27 carries and more than 130 rushing yards in his team’s three previous games, scoring three touchdowns as New Orleans went 2-1. The performances were enough for the Saints’ Sean Payton on Thursday to say Ingram was rushing the ball as well as the best running backs he’d coached over the last three decades: five-time Pro Bowler Ricky Watters at Philadelphia; three-time Pro Bowler Tiki Barber with the New York Giants; and seven-time Pro Bowler Marshall Faulk at San Diego State.

“I haven’t touched the ball that much probably since college,” said Ingram, a four-year pro who had never carried the ball more than 21 times and had only twice rushed for more than 100 yards before the recent stretch. “People (in public these days) show love and congratulate you and say you’re doing a great job and you’re their favorite Saint, … (and) I wasn’t getting that … all the time.”

However, as much as he’s enjoyed all of it, he realized the raw number of carries and yards could diminish soon. Ingram has received more carries than usual because running backs Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas missed the past three games due to injuries. Indications are that both will eventually return; and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they were utilized as they had been prior to being hurt, when they had combined for 693 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns.

“I know what type of system we run; and … those guys are banged up, so I just had to step up and do my job,” said Ingram, who already has a career-high six rushing touchdowns this season for the Saints (4-5) despite missing three games with a fractured hand. “I know that’s part of the system. We split carries and stuff — I know that’s probably coming.”

Payton was non-committal Thursday about whether he intended in the future to maintain Ingram’s workload at the level it’d been at.

“Each week, we’ll come up with the best plan,” Payton said of Ingram, the first Saints player since 2003 to rush for at least 100 yards in three straight games. Payton noted it was ironic that his use of Ingram was such a hot topic when at the beginning of last season many in New Orleans were ready to quit on the running back after he picked up only 31 yards on his first 17 carries, hurt his toe, and was sidelined for the following five games; and then the coach said, “Obviously, it’s good to see him playing well. … It was … hard (for him) a year ago.”

Ingram insisted he wasn’t worried about any of that one way or the other. The former first-round draft selection and Heisman Trophy winner out of Alabama also said he’s not fretting how his on-field exploits this year could affect his prospects this spring, when he’s set to become a free agent.

All he cared about was the Saints were three days away from hosting the Bengals (5-3-1) and their 31st-ranked rushing defense. Robinson and Thomas had not been able to practice again Thursday, and that meant Ingram’s chances were excellent of commanding the lion’s share of the Saints’ touches at running back against a team that had surrendered total of 561 yards on 132 carries in defeats of 43-17, 27-0 and 24-3 at New England, at Indianapolis and at home versus Cleveland.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis singled out Ingram as a primary concern to media in Cincinnati this week.

“Mark Ingram,” Lewis remarked, “is running the ball very well.”

Ingram didn’t mind sharing his recipe for success Thursday.

“The more time (you have) to touch the ball,” Ingram said, “(the) more chances you have to be successful.”