WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. — Few coaches know how to use the running back in the passing game better than Saints coach Sean Payton.
Under Payton, New Orleans running backs from Reggie Bush to Pierre Thomas to Darren Sproles have routinely caught more than 50 passes in a season, sometimes two of those backs performing the feat in the same season.
Now that Thomas is gone, all eyes have turned to free agent C.J. Spiller to assume the mantle of the Saints’ next great receiving running back. But with Spiller expected to be on the shelf for most of the rest of training camp because of arthroscopic surgery on his knee, the Saints are beginning to realize they might have underrated receiving weapons in the forms of Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson.
“One of the things that we’re seeing with both (Robinson) and Mark is their role increase in the passing game,” Payton said.
Ingram has spent four years in New Orleans, but with players like Sproles and Thomas and Travaris Cadet on the roster, he hasn’t gotten many receiving chances in his first four seasons. Up until last season, Ingram had never caught more than 11 passes in a season for the Saints. And even though he made 29 grabs last season, he rarely got a chance downfield.
Ingram averaged just 5.0 yards per catch on those 29 receptions.
But the son of a former NFL receiver has always believed he could do more than simply pound out yards between the tackles.
“My father played receiver, so obviously he had me in the backyard, running routes and catching passes at a young age,” Ingram said. “I did it in middle school, in high school, at Alabama, screens, they’d run me tunnel screens for 70-yard touchdowns. I’ve been doing it, I’m just waiting on my opportunity so I can do it here.”
Robinson, who has just eight catches in two seasons in large part because of his spot on the depth chart, has shown flashes of receiving ability in the preseason.
In 2013, as an undrafted rookie who barely got a chance at training camp, Robinson helped himself earn a roster spot by leading the team in receptions in the preseason, hauling in a team-leading 11 passes for 103 yards. Backup quarterback Ryan Griffin never forgot the performance.
“Khiry’s a great receiver,” Griffin said. “Our rookie year, I don’t know how many times, but if you were to put a ratio to it, out of every three pass plays, one of them went to him. He’s a tough matchup for linebackers, and once he gets the ball, you guys see what he can do. Maybe a little underrated, he’s got great hands.”
Now, both running backs are getting plenty of chances to show what they can do.
Ingram has been devastating in practice, beating linebackers over the middle on slants out of the backfield and snagging back-shoulder grabs on wheel routes up the sideline, something he hasn’t really been asked to do before.
Offered plenty more chances in the passing game, Ingram doesn’t have a drop on the practice field.
Robinson has had some chances on The Greenbrier practice fields, but he got his best chance to flash that ability in Thursday night’s preseason game against Baltimore, a chance to reunite with his old pitch-and-catch partner on a two-minute drill late in the first half. Robinson made three catches for 37 yards, including a 21-yard touchdown on which he beat a linebacker to the middle on an outside-in routes out of the backfield, broke a tackle at the 5-yard line and bulled his way into the end zone.
Now, even though the Saints believe Spiller will be healthy by the opening week, New Orleans has plenty of options to continue its long tradition of running backs as receivers.
“I’ve always wanted to do that, ever since my first day here,” Ingram said. “I’ve always believed in myself that I can contribute in the passing game, coming out of the backfield, running routes. Whatever way there is to get the ball, I feel like I can do it effectively. I’ve been saying it for a long time.”
He and Robinson might get plenty of chances this season.
PATRIOTS AT SAINTS
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome
Radio: WDGL-FM, 98.1; WWL-AM, 870; WWL-FM, 105.3; KMDL-FM, 97.3