Saints running backs Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson show off their pass-catching skills against the Patriots _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram makes a leaping first down during Saturday's exhibition against the New England Patriots in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Ingram had three catches for 45 yards in the first half.

The search for players who can replace the production the Saints lost in the passing game has led to a pair of surprising options.

Up until this season, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson haven’t gotten many opportunities in the passing game.

But the New England Patriots got a taste on Saturday night of what the Saints’ linebackers and safeties have been trying to deal with throughout training camp. Ingram and Robinson combined to make five catches for 73 yards, kick-starting the offense’s momentum with big plays in the passing game.

“We’ve just got more opportunities,” Robinson said. “Everybody in the backfield feeds off of each other. I see Mark do well, it makes me want to do better.”

Ingram, a back who is proud of his receiving skills and happy to admit he’s always wanted a few more opportunities in the passing game, got things going right of the bat.

On the opening play of the game, Ingram took a short throw from Brees and picked his way to a first down. On the next snap, Ingram ran past New England linebacker Jamie Collins -- known for his coverage ability -- and hauled in a wheel route for 29 yards up the right sideline.

Robinson entered the game a couple of plays later and picked up where Ingram left off by taking a short throw, breaking a tackle and rolling 11 yards for a first down. On the next drive, Robinson took a screen from Brees and followed a block from Jahri Evans for 17 yards.

Ingram and Robinson’s effectiveness in the passing game hasn’t surprised their teammates, and if C.J. Spiller returns healthy, New Orleans will be even more dangerous out of the backfield.

“Isn’t that what the Saints offense does, have a lot of catches in the backfield?” wide receiver Brandin Cooks said.

Rookie returns

The Saints wanted to see Marcus Murphy get some punt-return chances after he handled only kickoffs in Baltimore.

On Saturday night, Murphy got his chance. He fielded four punts, returned three for 27 yards and made a fair catch on one offering, solidifying his status as the front-runner for the return job.

Decisiveness might be Murphy’s calling card. On all three of his returns, Murphy identified a lane and attacked it immediately, making solid gains despite several Patriots who beat the blocking scheme and ran free.

Short-handed

The Saints’ first team defense pitched a first-quarter shutout against New England — even though several starters were missing, including the entire secondary.

Cornerback Keenan Lewis, safety Kenny Vaccaro, safety Jairus Byrd, cornerback Brandon Browner, cornerback Delvin Breaux, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and defensive end Anthony Spencer — all expected to play key roles on the defense — missed Saturday’s game.

In addition, backup linebackers Ramon Humber and Ronald Powell were missing.

Most of the injuries to projected starters are minor. Lewis and Breaux were both seen running on the field in pregame warmups; Vaccaro has been present at practice; and sources have told The Advocate that injuries to Browner, Ellerbe and Humber are not serious.

Lagniappe

Defensive end Akiem Hicks returned after missing Thursday’s practice and played all the way through the first quarter. ... Guard Cyril Lemon and wide receiver Lance Lewis were held out of action on offense, in addition to running back C.J. Spiller, who wasn’t expected to play after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his knee last week. ... Kicker Dustin Hopkins continues to handle kickoffs instead of punter Thomas Morstead, who has been the kickoff specialist the past couple of seasons.