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Saints opt for RB committee after Mark Ingram benched for fumble

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints will turn to a committee approach this week at running back after starter Mark Ingram was benched for a costly fumble in Sunday's 25-20 victory over the Seattle Seahawks.

A source told ESPN's Britt McHenry that backup Tim Hightower has earned more carries for this upcoming Sunday's game at the San Francisco 49ers after he ran for 102 yards on 26 carries in Ingram's place. But the source also said Ingram will bounce back and that the Saints will use a committee approach no matter which running back is the starter.

Saints coach Sean Payton made similar comments in a Monday conference call, saying that Hightower could "definitely" get more carries but that Ingram has "an obviously important role with our team and our offense."

"Each week, we look at the opponent, and we'll look at the game and how we want to distribute the touches," Payton said. "You can get a rotation, and we've done that."

Payton said he didn't initially intend to sit Ingram for the remainder of the game after Ingram's first-quarter fumble was returned 34 yards for a touchdown by Seahawks safety Earl Thomas.

"But I just felt the way Tim was running it, he was getting into a pretty good groove. And that's the way it unfolded," Payton said.

Ball security was an even bigger emphasis than usual Sunday because of New Orleans' game plan against Seattle's imposing defense.

Not only did the Saints preach that the Seahawks thrive on forcing turnovers -- they also wanted to use a ball-control offense to wear them down after Seattle's defense was on the field for 95 snaps the week before in a 6-6 tie with the Arizona Cardinals.

It worked. The Saints ran the ball a season-high 35 times while possessing the ball for 72 plays and more than 36 minutes.

"Ball security is such an important part of playing those guys," Payton reiterated on Monday.

It didn't help Ingram's cause that he also lost a costly fumble in the fourth quarter of New Orleans' 27-21 loss at the Kansas City Chiefs one week earlier. However, this is now the first time in Ingram's six-year career that he has lost two fumbles in the same season.

Ingram has not been available for comment since Sunday's game.

Ingram had emerged as a trusted, valuable every-down back for the Saints over the past two years as a runner, receiver, pass protector and goal-line option.

The Saints don't usually run the ball heavily, so Ingram doesn't have more than 77 rushing yards in any game this year. But he remains on pace for more than 1,100 yards from scrimmage for the third straight year.

"Listen, I love Mark Ingram, I love everything about him," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said after Sunday's game. "I know he's gonna bounce back. And I've got so much trust and confidence in him, as does this entire offense. So I wouldn't look into that any further than right now."

Hightower, meanwhile, has also earned the love from the Saints over the past two years after making a remarkable comeback.

The 30-year-old spent more than three years without playing an NFL game because of a torn ACL and an ensuing infection. But last year, he gained 456 yards from scrimmage with four touchdowns over New Orleans' final four games after Ingram went down with a shoulder injury.

The Saints are now 4-1 with Hightower as their featured back. And the source told McHenry that the offensive line "really likes him."

"He's someone that I think has been a consistent performer for us since he's gotten healthy," Payton said of Hightower on Monday. "It was good to see him go in there and play well."

Both backs should be eager for the opportunity to run the ball Sunday at San Francisco. The 49ers have the worst rushing defense in the NFL this year, allowing 185 rushing yards per game.

"I'm gonna prepare for [more carries]. I'm gonna prepare for whatever they need me to do," Hightower said Monday. "I'm not anticipating anything. My mindset doesn't change. When I didn't get any carries, my mindset was I've gotta come every day and prepare as if this team is gonna count on me in the fourth quarter. As if every single time I get the ball, it's gonna be the biggest play of the game."