Mark Ingram at his best when Saints lean on him most

METAIRIE, La. -- Mark Ingram's monster performance Sunday night made a compelling case for the theory that he’s the kind of running back who gets stronger with more carries.

Whether or not that’s true, the New Orleans Saints' fourth-year back is clearly running with more momentum and confidence than he ever has in his up-and-down career.

Ingram ran the ball a career-high 24 times for 172 yards in the Saints’ 44-23 victory over the Green Bay Packers (including 124 yards and a touchdown in the second half). It was the most rushing yards by a Saints back since Deuce McAllister in 2003.

Ingram, who has never complained publicly about being a part of a committee in New Orleans, acknowledged Sunday night that “anytime you can just get into a rhythm it feels good . . . Any player would say that.”

The more gratifying part, he said, was knowing that the Saints were counting on him because fellow backs Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas were both sidelined by injuries.

“I just had to step up and do the best I could,” said Ingram, who repeatedly praised the offensive line for leading the way Sunday, saying his night “would not have been possible” without them.

“We were just clicking,” Ingram said. “When they get off the ball and create seams for me to run through, I just try to find it. Follow my read and just go with my instincts.”

I’m not sure how much I buy into the theory that one back is better than a committee for an NFL team.

As often as guys like Ingram have these types of performances, you’ll also see the benefit of fresh legs when guys rotate. The Saints’ one-two punch of Ingram and Robinson thrived in the playoffs last season at Philadelphia. And the one-two punch of Robinson and Thomas led New Orleans to victory over Tampa Bay earlier this month when Ingram was out with a broken hand.

If one Saints running back was clearly better than the others, I’d argue differently. But over the years, the Saints have truly had a collection of very good backs who all deserved touches (from McAllister to Reggie Bush, Thomas, Darren Sproles, Ingram, Chris Ivory and Robinson).

Tight end Jimmy Graham brought up the notion Sunday night that Ingram plays better in the type of role he played Sunday.

“He’s a 'feel' running back,” Graham said. “He needs those touches to get a feel for what we’re doing. And our O-line, we need those touches so that we get a feel for what these guys are doing on the run.”

But coach Sean Payton said he believes it’s more of a case-by-case basis.

“Each week, depending on who we’re playing, we’ll look closely at who we want to have in the game,” Payton said. “We’ve had games where we’ve had multiple guys with a high dose of carries. We’ve had games where there’s been maybe one more guy featured and we kind of go with the hot hand. It just depends on the week and who we’re playing.”

With all due credit to both Ingram and the offensive line, one of the biggest factors for Sunday’s success was the Packers’ porous run defense, which ranks last in the NFL, allowing 153.5 rushing yards per game.

Ingram had a career-high 92 yards after contact Sunday, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- the second-most in a NFL game this season behind Cincinnati’s Gio Bernard. Not only that, but the Saints’ balance also allowed them to torment Green Bay with play-action passes. Drew Brees completed all seven of his play-action passes for 144 yards and all three of his touchdown passes in the second half.

“Going in, we felt that was a key part of winning this game, and we were able to execute that,” Payton said. “So each week can take on a different plan, and yet that balance is still something we’re looking for, whether it’s coming from one running back or more than one.”

The Saints are now ranked seventh in the NFL in rushing yards per game (133.0) and second in yards per carry (5.1). Ingram became the Saints’ leading rusher by one yard over Robinson -- despite Ingram missing three games with the broken hand. Ingram has 331 yards on 58 carries, and Robinson 330 on 64 carries.

“For one, I think [Ingram] is more confident,” Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. “Not only more confident in what we’re trying to do up front, how these plays are supposed to hit and who he’s got to set up for us, but more in just his ability. I think he’s had success, and I think it came at the end of last year when Mark starting feeling some confidence and had some success and kind of saw how much he could help us help him.

“It was really good to see him get as much action as he did last night and come through with such a big game.”