Amidst a season that was largely over before it started, Mark Ingram caught a lot of heat last season for playing over Chris Ivory. Most Saints fans felt Ingram's draft status, not his performance, is what kept him on the field over the undrafted but budding star. Now that Ivory has been traded to the Jets, Ingram won't have to worry about looking over his shoulder this season. Ingram has struggled mightily at times during his two year career with the Saints, no doubt. I believe he will only improve with the Saints if he gets better at the things he doesn't do as well: pass blocking and receiving (which takes for granted that his running the rock is an asset, something I'm not 100% sold on either).
The first seven games of the season last year for Ingram were miserable, no question about it. In limited carries each game, he had 134 yards on 47 carries and just one touchdown. While Ingram generally gets the lion share of his carries in obvious running situations and short yardage plays, the 2.85 yard per carry average during that period wasn't lobbying for extra playing time. Then the Saints started utilizing Chris Ivory more, committed to running the football, and it's almost like a switch came on for Ingram. The final 9 games saw Ingram rush for 468 yards on 109 carries, for an average of 4.29 yards per carry, and 4 touchdowns. Amazing numbers? No. But that's a pretty solid nine game stretch and something to build on. Again, the Saints are a bit one dimensional and predictable in how they use Ingram, so for him to have a stretch like that is a very good sign when teams know what he's on the field to do. Also notable is that in 162 touches last season Mark Ingram did not fumble the football one single time.
So what was the difference with Ingram? Well, he's the type of back that gets stronger as the game wears on. He's a physical back that really starts to hurt you late in games when the defense is tired and the tackling technique starts to slip. He's the type of back that imposes himself physically early and over the course of a game he continues to chip away at you little by little until you cave. I'm not convinced that style fits the Saints' offense that well, to be honest. Neither did Ivory's style. The Saints' offense needs backs that can pound the rock but have versatility. Sproles, Cadet and Pierre Thomas are perfect backs to rotate in and out in a system like this. A back that needs 20+ carries for you to benefit from his full value to me is not a great fit in this offense. Ingram is almost too traditional of a back to work in an offense that's innovative and calls for polyvalence. Ultimately I believe Ingram will find success in this offense by being able to develop his pass protection skills and catching ability, at least enough to justify having the Saints play him on not obvious running downs. In turn, it will tip the opposition less on what the play call will be, which allows for bigger running lanes.
I'm not saying the Saints shouldn't run the ball or commit to the run. We saw very clearly what happens when the Saints throw every play (see the first four games of last season) and that's not a sustainable way of playing offense. But the real strength of the Saints backs' is the heavy rotation they use to keep the defense on their toes. That means a back that's slow to warm up and needs you to commit to numerous carries with him to get going isn't going to be as successful as a guy that can come in and immediately give the team some energy. That's why Pierre Thomas is a fantastic fit for this offense – he does everything very well. Thomas isn't a superstar at anything (except maybe you could argue he has terrific hands and sets up blocks better than anyone) but he's a jack of all trades. The minute he comes in he gives you a threat in the passing game, good protection, hard running on the interior, and enough moves to make a guy miss on the edge. Because of that versatility, you see PT taking advantage of what this offense gives him: mismatches and opportunities to be efficient in performance despite limited reps.
Darren Sproles is a bit of the other extreme, where he tips pass when he's in the game. Still, he has burned other teams badly with the surprise pitch sweep or delay interior handoff. For his size his handoffs seem to always catch other teams off guard and result in big plays. So that's the vision I have for Ingram to become successful in this offense, flipped around. Because his mere presence tips run, Ingram represents a huge boost to Brees' ability to exploit defenses if and only if he starts to protect better and make plays when the screens come his way. That is the part of his game that has been severely lacking so far, but shaping that up is utlimately what will keep him on the field more, allow him to get more opportunities in different situations, and allow him to reach his full potential in this offense. Simply put, better pass blocking and receiving will make him a better ball carrier on running plays.
Otherwise, he's better off finding a team that will line up in the I formation all the time and pound the rock. That's not the general direction of the league, though, and it's certainly not the direction of the Saints' offense. What do you think about Ingram? Is he a good fit for the Saints offense? Do you see him breaking out in 2013?