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Saints vs. Panthers: Mark Ingram Approaching Hallowed Milestone

Once heavily criticized, running back Mark Ingram could become the first Saints running back to rush for 1000 yards in a regular season since the legendary Deuce McAllister. He'll get a chance to get closer to that milestone against the Panthers on Sunday.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

In New Orleans, a city that lives and dies with a team called the Saints, the name Deuce McAllister is a hallowed one. Dulymus Jenod "Deuce" McAllister, who was drafted 23rd overall by the Jim Haslett-coached New Orleans Saints in the 2001 NFL draft, is the last Saints running back to have a 1000-yard rushing season. He is also the only one to reach the revered mark (1,057 yards in 2006) under the tutelage of current Saints head coach Sean Payton. In fact, since Payton took over in New Orleans in 2006, the closest to 1000-yards (excluding McAllister in 2006) was Pierre Thomas who had 793 yards in 2009.

Through 12 games in 2014, former first round pick running back Mark Ingram has 767 yards rushing, a mere 233 yards away from being the first Saints running back to rush for 1000 yards in eight years. What's even more impressive is that Ingram has done so while being inactive for three full games and recording four games with 13 carries or less.

With four games to go, Ingram needs to rush for 58.3 yards per game to reach the 1000-yard mark. So far this year he has averaged 85.2 yards per game (in the nine games in which he has played) which barring any injury, puts him on pace for about 1108 yards at the end of the regular season.

The turnaround is remarkable for Ingram. Until about week seven this season, he was widely considered a first round bust, not only by Saints fans but also by fans and pundits around the league. After further examination of his numbers, there is no doubt in my mind that Ingram's vitriolic criticism was a blatant exaggeration and a product of our increasingly impatient society. Let's take a quick look:



Here's what we see:

  • Lack of opportunities: In 2014, through only nine games, Ingram already has 172 rushing attempts. That's 16 attempts more than what he had all of 2012 (156), his second highest season in terms of carries. It is fair to say that a lack of carries earlier in his career has been a big part of the fourth-year running back's previous struggles.
  • Injuries: In 2011, Ingram was inactive for six games. In 2013, he missed five games. In 2014, before going on the tear he currently is on, he missed three games. Injuries have clearly contributed to Ingram's low productivity. It's disappointing to see a highly-drafted player miss a lot of games, but he can't reasonably be blamed for injuries when he simply has no realistic control over their occurrence.
  • Yards per carries: Certainly the more important number over the sheer amount of yards. Ingram has always hovered around the 4.0 ypc mark, which is very good for any running back. Since 2013, he has squarely been over the 4.0 ypc threshold, which shows he didn't just wait until his contract year to start playing well.

On Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, the Saints will be going against a defense that has allowed 4.39 yards per carry (24th in the NFL). In a 28-10 week 9 win in Carolina on October 30th, New Orleans rushed for 105 yards on 37 carries. Ingram ran the ball 30 times for 100 yards and two touchdowns. Although it wasn't his best game in terms of average yards per play (3.3), New Orleans' persistence with the running game eventually paid off: the Saints held the ball for 35:18 (vs. 24:42 for Carolina). By doing so, they greatly reduced the opportunities of an already limited Panthers' offense.

If I were head coach Sean Payton, I would follow the same gameplan: run Ingram until he gets into a groove and starts finding holes in Carolina's defense. One significant factor that may come into play this Sunday however is the return of backup running back Khiry Robinson. Robinson getting back to the lineup is a welcome addition, as was that of running back Pierre Thomas last week. Down the stretch, the Saints are going to need some fresh legs to try and wrestle the NFC South from the Atlanta Falcons. With a three-headed monster to work with again in the backfield, Payton may then revert to his usual "running back by committee" approach.

Despite the arrival of the reinforcements in the running game, I think the Saints should stick with the hot hand (Ingram), while progressively re-acclimating Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson to the rhythm of the game.

Winning obviously trumps everything else, but selfishly, I would love for the Saints to sustain their running success while also enabling the once-maligned Ingram to become only the second Saints running back in the Payton era to rush for 1000 yards.

What say you Who Dat Nation? Should Payton let Ingramania go for 1000?