When the Saints landed in New Orleans in the middle of the night on their way back from dismantling the New York Giants 33-18 on Sunday, the final piece of their offensive puzzle was waiting for them on the other side of security at the airport and smiling.
Mark Ingram is back.
And he’s stepping into an offense that looks like it finally has all the gears that drove the explosive 2017 Saints in the playoffs.
From the start of the season, Drew Brees has been efficient as ever in the passing game, tossing eight touchdowns without a single pick in the first four games of the year. New Orleans is still looking for a consistent third option at wide receiver, but Michael Thomas has been dominant, Benjamin Watson is an upgrade at tight end and Ted Ginn Jr. has been making the kinds of big plays he made a season ago.
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All that was left was the running game, and after chipping away at the wall against the Falcons, Alvin Kamara and the Saints broke through against New York, racking up 170 yards on 32 carries.
“Especially with the success we had last year, and the struggles we’ve had early, we’ve just got to build off of it,” left tackle Terron Armstead said.
“Teams are going to try to come stop the run, especially with Mark coming back.”
Without Ingram around to handle half the load and perform his signature magic between the tackles, the Saints running game got off to a slow start. A come-from-behind shootout in the season opener prevented New Orleans from establishing the run, and the Saints averaged just 3.3 yards on the ground in the opener.
New Orleans struggled even more against Cleveland, picking up just 2.7 yards per carry against the Browns’ talented front.
The tide has turned the other way the past two weeks.
Facing off against a Falcons defense that held the Saints to just 136 yards and 3.0 yards per carry in two meetings last season, New Orleans averaged 5.3 yards per carry in a shootout win in Atlanta.
Then Kamara and the Saints wore down New York on Sunday, averaging 5.3 per carry again. All of a sudden, a New Orleans offense that finished second in the NFL in yards per rush last season is up to 10th this year.
“It starts with that o-line, those guys are tremendous,” Kamara said. “When we call a run play, they act like they’re getting the ball. It makes it easy for me to be able to get behind them. When I score, it’s like they score a touchdown.”
And now they’re about to get back the other half of the NFL’s most productive duo at running back. Ever since establishing himself as a talented one-cut runner who is quick through the hole, Ingram has averaged 4.7 yards per carry over the past five seasons, including 5.0 the past two seasons.
“Not just his productivity and the type of player he is, but he’s one of the most well-liked and respected guys in the locker room,” Brees said. “I know it’s been killing him to be away. It’s real exciting to get his personality and his work ethic back.”
Ingram’s presence also allows Kamara to be more of the lightning bolt he was last season, a calculated weapon deployed for maximum effect.
Although Kamara has performed admirably without Ingram in the lineup — he’s picked up 275 yards on 56 carries — he’s taken more of a pounding as he handles both his role and the heavy carries Ingram often took last year.
“It’s good to take a load off of Alvin, because we’re going to need him,” right guard Larry Warford said. “We don’t want to put a huge load on him.”
Ingram also takes a load off of Kamara mentally.
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