The New Orleans Saints tried to alleviate some congestion in their crowded backfield this offseason by trading running back Chris Ivory to the New York Jets. But then they went and added a new undrafted free agent, Khiry Robinson, whose performance is demanding he remain part of the rotation.
Robinson (6 feet, 220 pounds) has made the most of his limited opportunities over the past four weeks since Mark Ingram went down with a toe injury. Ingram is expected to return to the lineup after the Week 7 bye. But the Saints will likely try to figure out how to keep Robinson in the mix along with Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Ingram.
Robinson had his most outstanding performance to date in Sunday’s 30-27 loss to the New England Patriots. He gained 53 yards on seven carries, all in the second half -- including a terrific 20-yard gain, a 16-yard gain and a 3-yard touchdown. In addition to his power-speed combo, Robinson has shown great instincts and vision on several nifty cutback runs this season. That was especially true on his 20-yard gain in the fourth quarter against the Patriots, when he cut back outside to the right, then kept his balance while breaking a leg tackle.
Unfortunately, on the very next play, Robinson committed the ultimate sin for a rookie trying to earn trust. He appeared to fumble the football on a 4-yard gain up the middle. Although a fumble wasn’t called on the field, the Patriots may have challenged the ruling if Saints left tackle Charles Brown hadn’t recovered.
Robinson also fumbled twice in the fourth preseason game. And when asked Monday if Robinson is earning his trust, Saints coach Sean Payton immediately mentioned the fumble.
“I think the ball came out on a play,” Payton said. “I thought he handled the opportunities outstanding. But the ball security for a young player of understanding how difficult it is in our league is something we will continue to work on.
“But to answer the question, he’s been explosive. He’s been tough. He’s been hard-nosed. And we will continue to look at his snaps and evaluate how he fits in each game plan.”
It's a good sign for Robinson that the Saints continued to give him carries in the fourth quarter after the fumble, while they were trying to run out the clock to protect a lead.
I’ve been saying for weeks that I expect Ingram to resume his role in a timeshare with Thomas as the leading base-package runners when he returns from his toe injury. Although Ingram struggled in the first two games, the entire run game was struggling badly at that point. And the Saints were still so high on Ingram’s potential heading into this season that I don’t expect that to change overnight.
But the way Robinson has played in recent weeks will certainly make it difficult to take him off the field. The Saints may opt to stick with the hot hand. Robinson and Thomas both helped give the Saints offense life in the second half at New England when the passing game was struggling early.
Ideally for the Saints, their overall running game will keep improving to the point where there’s enough touches to go around for all of their running backs.