One of the bigger mysteries of the New Orleans Saints’ season could be solved over the next four weeks.
With Mark Ingram on injured reserve because of a torn left rotator cuff, the Saints must turn to running backs C.J. Spiller and Tim Hightower to carry the load.
If Spiller begins getting more snaps, as expected, it will finally end the mystery about what he’s capable to do in the Saints offense.
“It’s the one player that I’m trying to figure out what the touches (should be),” coach Sean Payton said. “I think that put him behind, and hopefully here down the stretch we can give him enough touches to see.”
Signed to a lucrative four-year contract during the offseason, Spiller came to New Orleans with the expectations that he could succeed in the offense the way Darren Sproles and Reggie Bush once did. But he underwent a minor procedure on his knee during training camp and did not get started as hoped.
Spiller has only logged 159 snaps this season, rushing 31 times for 108 yards and catching 29 passes for 216 yards. Payton believes that the injury set him back and contributed to Spiller’s reduced role in the offense.
“We’re going to get a chance to see more now,” Payton said. “I think the training camp injury obviously set him back some. And then it’s just a matter of the confidence and explosion off the knee. He’ll play a significant role, as will Tim Hightower and even (rookie Marcus) Murphy.”
Asked Wednesday about his health, explosiveness and ability to cut, Spiller said he did not think it was an issue.
“Yeah, I think I have the speed. I think you can probably look at the Dallas game,” Spiller said, referencing the 80-yard touchdown he scored in overtime to seal the game. “I have the cutting ability; you can probably go to the Giants game. So I feel great. But I’m always trying to get faster.”
Payton also said he’s curious to see what Hightower, who has 12 carries for 48 yards in his first season back from a 2011 knee injury, will do in a bigger role.
“He finally got some touches in a regular-season game against Washington,” Payton said. “He’s competitive; he’s tough; he’s been in that spotlight. For him it’s the confidence that the injury and the leg is 100 percent. I’m excited to see him play just like I am with C.J. But it will be a good opportunity.”
Payton also noted the team is working to get the players ready to serve in protection, a role Ingram excelled in this season.
“Hightower knows them well,” Payton said of the protections. “These other guys are on top of it;Ingram’s just gotten more work. I think that today’s practice — it’s been one of the whole focus points last night with third down and pressure looks, who is going to be in the game, who is our personnel, and then who we’re going to go about handling it. When you have a change like that, it just doesn’t impact your base.”
Torn rotator cuff
Ingram played all the way to the end of the Saints’ 41-38 loss to Carolina on Sunday.
But the fifth-year running back knew something was different. Ingram had been playing with a sprained AC joint in his left shoulder, but he came out of the Carolina game battling a different sort of pain.
An MRI revealed that Ingram tore his rotator cuff, ending the running back’s best season prematurely.
“There was more damage done to it, and at that point, he knew — the club knew — after the MRI that he had on Monday, that he was going to have it fixed,” Payton said. “He’s getting it done today.”
Ingram, who ranked sixth in the NFL with 1,174 yards from scrimmage, was averaging 4.6 yards per carry, and he caught 50 passes, a figure that ranked fourth among running backs.
“He’s tough, and he was playing good football for us,” Payton said. “But after this MRI, it was clear.”
James Andrews, the renowned orthopedic surgeon who handles plenty of surgeries on high-profile athletes, will perform the surgery to repair Ingram’s shoulder Thursday, and the running back will spend his offseason rehabbing it.
Before landing on injured reserve late last month with a hip injury, Keenan Lewis reached a point where he felt he was doing more harm than good.
“It just bothered me the whole time, so it was best not to keep hurting the team and have someone who is injured out there when you have guys that can really perform,” Lewis said. “Give them an opportunity.”
Lewis underwent surgery on his hip earlier this week but was back at the team’s facility Thursday. He said he plans to hang around and help the younger players in any manner that he can while he works to recover.
The surgery brought a close to a frustrating season that never got started the way Lewis had hoped. The cornerback underwent surgery during training camp and missed the first three games of the season. He returned but never got back to 100 percent.
“Nobody wants to be hurt, especially when you can’t contribute and you work your tail off the whole summer to try and put together a good season,” Lewis said. “But God (does) everything for a reason and I’ll be back.”
Lewis said he will take his time with his rehabilitation and has no reason to rush things, as he is already on injured reserve.
He said he has no concerns about being ready for next season.
“I’ll be back, though,” Lewis said. “At 100 (percent). We’ll write this story again.”