While the rest of New Orleans spends their Sundays searching for a glimpse of C.J. Spiller, and then spend their Mondays proclaiming that his lack of snaps stands out like a striped shirt in a rack of solids, the Saints don’t find the issue as perplexing.
No, the Saints aren’t taking part in this game of “Where’s Waldo?” They created the puzzle and the answer, at least on some Sundays, isn’t as confusing as some have made it out to be. The Saints found the man they feel deserves to receive the bulk of the snaps at running back, and sometimes doing what is best for the team doesn’t mesh with the outside perception.
“Mark (Ingram) is our feature back, and he has earned that right,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “Mark is a complete back, so he is going to be out there a lot.”
The thing that has made it difficult for others to get on the field — as well as justify taking Ingram off — is that he’s often New Orleans’ best option in whatever the situation might arise.
There was a time when Ingram used to serve as part of a rotation and come off the field in some passing situations. During his first three seasons, Ingram played 514 total snaps, of which 194 were passing plays, according to Pro Football Focus. Last season he started taking on a larger role in the passing game, with 222 of his 476 snaps coming on passing plays.
The ratio has been flipped on its head this season. Ingram has logged 422 snaps. Of those, 170 have been running plays and 252 passing plays. The reason for that is because Ingram has not only developed into an effective receiver, which has been one of the underrated story lines of the first half of the season.
He’s also become the team’s best pass protector.
Ingram’s performance in the latter regard hasn’t been perfect. While he picked up several blitzes early against the Tennessee Titans during Sunday’s 34-28 loss, he did allow a sack later in the game when Wesley Woodyard bounced off one of Ingram’s blocks to drop Drew Brees later in the game.
But that was one of Ingram’s few missteps in this role during the past two seasons, and his ability in this area was invaluable against the Titans, who were committed to blitzing throughout the contest. Sometimes picking up those guys is not as easy as it looks.
“There are some weeks where the third-down protections are fairly complex, and how we are directing the line and where Drew is sending protection,” coach Sean Payton said. “And there are some weeks where it’s a little cleaner. I would say that his versatility has helped us, and certainly been a plus for him when it comes to the third-down snaps.”
After reviewing the game film from the past two seasons, Ingram was spotted serving as a pass blocker on about 100 plays. He allowed one sack, one hit and six hurries during that span. Considering he rarely served in that capacity during his first three seasons, his growth in this area has been a valuable development for this offense.
Spiller, meanwhile, has only been asked to pass block on six occasions this season. It’s not that he can’t do it. A quick look at some stats provided by Pro Football Focus show that Spiller struggled a bit during his later years in Buffalo, but he was used heavily as a protector in 2012 and allowed eight combined hurries, hits and sacks. For whatever reason, New Orleans hasn’t given him much of a shot in the role.
That’s a good thing for the offense, in terms of being able to disguise some things with Ingram. One of the common complaints surrounding this offense in previous seasons is that it was often easy to read the offense’s intentions based on which running back was in the game. Considering Ingram now does it all, that is no longer the case.
“(When) he’s on the field, we can execute any package in our offense,” Brees said. “We aren’t limited one bit.”
The inverse, however, has now come true for Spiller. It used to be that Ingram being on the field meant that it was likely going to be a run. And while it’s not always true, defenses react as if it is going to be a passing play when Spiller comes on the field.
This became obvious during last week’s game against the Titans. When the Saints ran out of their two-tight end sets with Ingram on the field last week, he faced eight men in the box on every play. On Spiller’s two runs out of the set, Tennessee dropped an extra man in coverage and left seven in the box.
But while Ingram’s ability to do everything has been a major benefit for the offense, and helps explain why some of the other running backs aren’t getting as many opportunities, Spiller’s lack of use still remains confusing.
When the Saints signed him during the offseason, images of how the team used Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles populated imaginations. It seemed like he would be the latest and greatest toy for Payton to scheme for. It was even predicted here that he would challenge and maybe surpass Ingram in touches.
That was before it was known Ingram would develop into not only a viable, but effective receiver out of the backfield. However, his growth as a protector last season should have made it clear he would take on an even bigger role in passing situations.
Still, the disparity is hard to understand. But you can no longer guess what’s going to happen when Ingram is on the field. Just like you can no longer guess when you might spot Spiller.