Saints roster spotlight: Running backs

A look at the New Orleans Saints running backs through the first six weeks of the 2013 season:

Looking back: The Saints’ run game has shown signs of life over the past two weeks after an excruciatingly slow start. Veteran Pierre Thomas has been solid as a runner the past two games, and undrafted rookie Khiry Robinson continues to impress with increased opportunities. Robinson gained 53 yards and a touchdown on just seven carries in the second half last Sunday at New England.

But it’s the passing game where the Saints’ running backs have been most productive. Darren Sproles leads all NFL running backs with 366 receiving yards this year. And he and Thomas both rank among the top five running backs in receptions (32 and 29, respectively). Seldom-used backup Travaris Cadet even caught a touchdown pass last Sunday at New England.

The one running back who hasn’t had any success yet this year is Mark Ingram, who ran for just 31 yards on 17 carries in two games before being sidelined by a toe injury (though the entire run game was sputtering in those early weeks). Last but not least, fullback Jed Collins has been on the same steady rise as the rest of the Saints’ run game. He had his two best games the past two weeks -- both as a blocker and as a sneaky-effective runner and receiver.

Looking forward: It will be fascinating to see how the Saints choose to work Ingram back into the mix. He should be healthy enough to return in Week 8. And I definitely expect the Saints to give him another chance to become a key part of the offense. They were high on him this summer, and they don’t blame him solely for his struggles in the first two games, since the entire run game was struggling throughout September. I expect improved production from all of the Saints’ running backs going forward.

However, there aren’t that many carries to go around in the Saints’ run game, and Robinson and Thomas have been on a mini-roll lately. So Ingram will have to earn his place back in the rotation and prove he deserves to take carries away from those guys.

Snaps played (out of a possible 415): Thomas 199, Sproles 173, Collins 168, Ingram 31, Robinson 30, Cadet 3.

ESPN scouting Insider Matt Williamson’s take: “Sproles is special. I don’t know if you can even call him a running back the way they use him. He can do that, but where he’s special is his ability to create mismatches in the passing game. He’s exceptional at that. I’m not sure if there’s a back in the league that’s better at it than him, and they know exactly how to use him, as does (quarterback Drew) Brees.

“The rest of the group, I think is pretty pedestrian. I think Robinson’s a little bit exciting, though. He’s starting to come on and show some flashes and runs with some power and some anger. I think he can be your Ivory type of guy, possibly, so I think he’s encouraging. Pierre Thomas is what he is and he does everything well, but he doesn’t excel in one area. You love to have him on your team, but you only want to give him so many touches.”