Time to give up hope for Mark Ingram?

Mark Ingram was stymied by the Bucs, rushing for 20 yards on eight carries. Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

METAIRIE, La. -- Is it time to give up hope that Mark Ingram will ever develop into a productive weapon for the New Orleans Saints?

Easy answer: Yes and no.

I don't think the Saints will abandon the running back just yet, not after they've had such optimism about the 2011 first-round draft pick for so long. And everyone from coach Sean Payton to quarterback Drew Brees to the Saints' offensive linemen defended Ingram this week by accurately pointing out that the problems with the run game are far wider than just one individual tailback.

"He, like the rest of us, is working to improve his game," Payton said. "There's some looks, though, that I know we are going to be better at that are going to help him."

I do, however, think Ingram has missed out on his opportunity to establish himself as the team's primary runner with his uninspiring start to this season (just 31 rushing yards on 17 carries through two games, both Saints victories). And to make matters worse, Ingram was held out of Wednesday's practice with a toe injury, the severity of which is unknown.

Heading into this season, it looked like the Saints were committed to giving Ingram a chance to become more of a leading man in their three-man running-back rotation. But at this point, I don't think they'll be so stubborn in that attempt.

The Saints began featuring fellow tailback Pierre Thomas more after Ingram's early struggles last week at Tampa Bay. I would expect a subtle flip-flop in the coming weeks, where Thomas becomes more of a 1A and Ingram a 1B, instead of vice versa.

I still expect all of the Saints' tailbacks (Ingram, Thomas and dynamic runner/receiver Darren Sproles) to be more productive this season if the team can sort out the run-blocking problems that have plagued it for much of the past two seasons. But it's becoming clear that Ingram is the third-best option of those three.

Some fans would suggest that Ingram should actually rank fourth, behind undrafted rookie Khiry Robinson, though I'm not ready to go that far just yet.

I never expected Ingram to have a "breakout" season in 2013, but I thought he would approach something around 800-plus rushing yards, based on several factors. For one, he was healthier this summer than he had been in his two previous seasons. For another, the Saints traded away Chris Ivory to relieve some congestion in the backfield. And most important, the Saints appeared determined to use Ingram in a more versatile role, letting him have some draw plays, sweeps and even screen passes instead of being pigeonholed in short-yardage and base packages.

However, the one element that hasn't come into place yet is Ingram taking advantage of the opportunity. Ingram might be the type of back who needs volume to find his rhythm, but he won't get that chance when he's averaging less than 2 yards per carry.

I don't blame Ingram for most of his negative runs this season, but there have definitely been one or two where he missed a chance at a bigger gain, including one run where he slipped before hitting the hole in Week 1 against Atlanta.

I'm not as down on Ingram, though, when it comes to his two most high-profile failures at Tampa Bay last Sunday, during the Buccaneers' goal-line stand before halftime. Ingram had absolutely nowhere to go on the second-down pitch to the left side. Two Buccaneers blockers went unblocked on a play that simply didn't work.

Then on the fourth-and-1 run, Ingram had to sidestep fallen blocker Brian de la Puente before following fullback Jed Collins through a small crease. Ingram actually came within inches of scoring, but he didn't have enough power to win a standoff against linebacker Mason Foster at the goal line. And losing a standoff like that only added to the growing frustration of many fans (as my exploding Twitter timeline attested).

Ingram hasn't been available for comment yet this week, but he remained positive after his slow start in Week 1. And others have come to his defense.

"I know Mark says, 'I've got to get through that guy.' It's kind of one-on-one on the goal line," offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "[But] look, it's a team deal. There's no finger-pointing around here. We all take accountability for when it's on us. You look at it and you say, 'These are reasons why we didn't get in.' It's not any one guy."