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Associated Press photo by DAVID GOLDMAN -- Saints running back Mark Ingram runs for a touchdown as Atlanta Falcons cornerback Robert McClain chases during the second half Sunday. Ingram scored a touchdown on the play.

ATLANTA — Mark Ingram’s apparent temper tantrum turned into touchdowns Sunday afternoon, a negative morphed into a positive for the Saints offense.

Ingram, known for his outward emotions on the field, watched portions of this regular season-opening loss to Atlanta separated from his teammates — standing nearly 20 feet away from a sideline cluster, likely disgruntled by his smaller-than-expected role during the first three quarters.

By game’s end, it may have motivated him — and energized the Saints rushing attack.

In the first quarter, Ingram rushed four times for 11 yards. He did not have a carry in the second quarter. And in the third, he had just two carries for seven yards.

His best quarter, though, was the last.

“He ran hard,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.

During this span, Ingram had seven carries for 42 yards, including two scoring runs of 3 yards. The second TD, with 1:20 left in regulation, gave the Saints a 34-31 lead.

When asked about Ingram’s in-game frustration, which included throwing his helmet and having to be restrained by teammates, Payton said. “I didn’t see it.”

“I don’t know what the issue was,” said fellow running back Pierre Thomas. “I didn’t get involved. I wasn’t going to let it throw off my game, but he came around and scored two touchdowns and that was something we needed. He felt good after that.”

Running behind an improved offensive line, Ingram finished with 13 carries for 60 yards. He did not talk to reporters following the loss 37-34 overtime loss.

Ingram, expected to be the featured back in the competitive four-player Saints backfield, did not start Sunday’s game. Travaris Cadet had that honor, catching a 5-yard pass in the flat on the game’s first play from scrimmage.

Still, Saints running backs posted 27 carries for 137 yards, a vast improvement from last season’s 25th-ranked rushing attack (92.1 yards per game).

Payton said this offseason the offense planned to offer more pass-to-run balance, and Ingram expected to be the first option. Sunday’s game proved Ingram, a former first-round pick of the Saints in the 2011 NFL draft, may fill that role during this, his contract season. He had nearly half of the carries of Saints running backs. Yet it also showed he will have to be patient as he waits for those opportunities.

Or else, the Saints (0-1) could be running into trouble.

“Mark is passionate; he’s a passionate guy,” said Thomas, who rushed seven times for 31 yards and caught six passes for 58 yards. “We’ve seen that in college. You see that now, since he’s been in the league.”

During training camp, Ingram said he wanted to become the best running back in NFL history, a huge feat, even for the former Heisman Trophy winner, given his ho-hum pro career to that point. Injuries and a lack of offensive cohesiveness has limited his impact with the Saints during his first three seasons, as he’s never rushed for more than 602 yards (2012).