Drew Brees sounds especially eager for his next chance to get the ball to running back Mark Ingram.
The message from Ingram’s Saints teammates after practice on Wednesday was consistent. They said Ingram has been central to the success of the offense during New Orleans’ five-game winning streak.
And although Ingram lost his grip on the ball — twice — in the fourth quarter of the Saints’ game against Chicago last weekend, he hasn’t lost the trust of his teammates.
“Mark’s awesome. There’s no guy that I’d rather go into a game with. There’s not a guy who I care about more on this team than him or that I know is as prideful about what he does than him. He’s the heart and soul of this team,” Brees said.
“Also I know the approach he takes each and every day to practice. Even in walk-through, the guy is darn near full speed because that’s the way he approaches this game.”
The Saints held on to beat the Bears 20-12 despite Ingram’s turnovers, the first of which led to Chicago’s only touchdown and the second of which gave the Bears the ball with a chance to go in front.
New Orleans stopped Chicago on fourth down after Ingram’s second fumble to help preserve a 17-12 lead.
But when the Saints regained possession needing a first down to run out the clock, coach Sean Payton did not put Ingram back on the field.
Instead, he called three handoffs for rookie Alvin Kamara to force the Bears to burn timeouts and set up Wil Lutz’s field goal.
After that, the Saints still needed rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore’s interception to seal the victory, after which Ingram verbally berated himself and emphasizing that the game would not have been close if not for his mistakes.
To longtime Saints fans, Ingram’s rant against himself would have been vaguely reminiscent of coach Jim Mora’s postgame meltdown in 1996, the day before he resigned.
“I know he was disappointed, upset. I was upset,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Situationally, you’re carrying the ball and carrying everyone’s hopes and dreams — not just your own.”
While Payton generally would not be inclined to discuss during a game week whether Ingram’s role might be affected, he agreed that Ingram has had a good season and has played a central role in the success of the New Orleans’ offense.
Regarding the fumbles, Payton said, “I’m sure he’ll respond.”
Ingram had 99 yards from scrimmage — 75 rushing and 24 receiving — and a touchdown against Chicago before his fumbles.
“Guys that are hard on themselves are the ones that really care the most and so I would take that from what I heard and what you heard Mark say about himself after the game,” Brees said.
This season, Ingram has 464 yards and four TDs rushing, averaging 4.3 yards per carry. He also has 30 catches for 190 yards.
He and Kamara have performed well enough in tandem that Payton decided to trade away veteran star running back Adrian Peterson, whom the Saints had just signed this past offseason.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Mike Smith, whose team visits New Orleans on Sunday, said he has been impressed with the way the Saints have used both Ingram and Kamara.
“They’re doing a real good job of getting the ball to the running backs, especially in the passing game. Both of the running backs are very adept at catching the ball out of the backfield,” Smith said.
“They’ve got a very impressive screen game and then they’re committing to the run. … They’ve done a really good job of keeping people off balance.”
Kamara said Ingram was “fine” in practice Wednesday.
“We picked up where we left off. And I heard how he talked about himself and like, just being a running back, I mean, you know how that feels,” Kamara said. “Even today I was like, ‘Man, it happens.’
“I’ve got 100 percent confidence in Mark’s abilities,” Kamara added. “I don’t think his confidence is shaken. He knows what the issue was. We watched it. He was more critical of himself than anybody else and I know he’s eager to correct his mistakes, so that’s what’s going to happen.”