METAIRIE, La. -- Before this past Sunday, the New Orleans Saints were the only team in the NFL without a 20-yard run this season.
Then Mark Ingram finally broke free for 20 yards in the second quarter. Then he busted loose for 44 a few minutes later. Then he added on a 35-yard gain for good measure in the third quarter.
Ingram finished with a season-high 143 yards on just 14 carries, and the Saints ran for a season-high 183 as they beat the Indianapolis Colts 27-21.
"I think we came in with a very diverse run game, and I think it helped everybody," Ingram said of the Saints' variety of inside and outside runs. "The offensive line did a tremendous job. I can’t have a game like that without them. They did a great job getting a hat on hat, having seams for me to run through, and I just had to make a guy miss in the open field.
"We just gotta keep building on this."
Ironically, Ingram’s breakout game came after one of his quietest first quarters, which left fans on Twitter asking if he was injured. Ingram had only two carries in the first quarter, one of which was nullified by a penalty.
Running back Khiry Robinson, meanwhile, had seven carries for 20 yards and two touchdowns one play into the second quarter.
Coach Sean Payton explained that the Saints wanted to give their running backs a chance to get into a rhythm by having their own series. And it just so happened that the Saints threw the ball more during the first two series of the game (10 pass calls, three run calls).
The Saints also did a better job of getting runner/receiver C.J. Spiller involved early. Spiller had four catches for 39 yards and three runs for 15 yards in the first 16 minutes of the game.
"What we tried to do, was rather than have all these various tags (for the running backs’ roles), let Mark get into a groove early with a couple series, and then at some point give Khiry a series, and then get Mark back in," Payton explained. "So we’ve kind of gone a little bit more traditional approach there. And I think sometimes it becomes a little random, if you will, that all of a sudden one of 'em is in there when we move the ball and go down the field.
"But we’ve tried to look at really keeping the fresh guy in there and letting him stack plays together. I think it’s benefited both runners."
With their performance Sunday, the Saints moved up from 31st in the NFL to 22nd with 98.7 rushing yards per game. They also went from being tied for last in the league with 3.4 yards per carry to tied for 26th at 3.7 yards per carry.
It still wasn’t a perfect performance, though. Almost all of the Saints’ rushing yards came in the second and third quarters while they were extending their lead to 27-0.
Most disappointing, they weren’t able to run out the clock in the fourth quarter, when their running backs combined for just 1 yard on six carries.
But they obviously took several big steps in the right direction overall.
"Well, you’d obviously say it was a better game than we’ve had in a while. And we had some explosive runs, that was the one thing that stood out," Payton said. "Our guys up front did a really good job at the point of attack, and that’s a good run defense we played. So it was encouraging and something certainly to build on."
Center Max Unger also pointed to that diverse run-game plan the Saints had going into the game.
"They’re a pretty stout 3-4 style defense, and I think we had a good plan as far as a good variety of runs," Unger said. "Just executing those multiple runs, outside and inside, man plays, tight zone and wide zone, so we were able to kind of not run the same thing over and over again. It kind of kept them a little off guard.
"It was awesome. I know Mark and Khiry had awesome games. We just have to let this game be the standard as far as our ability to run the ball."