What’s the Deal with Mark Ingram?
Mark Ingram is back in the conversation. Specifically, the conversation is about his relative lack of production. We wanted to figure out the reasons for this–and we wanted to do it without Ingram-bashing.
Aside from the stray Saban-worshipping Alabama fan who also cheers for the Saints, most members of the Who Dat Nation don’t make an active effort to defend Ingram.1 Last night, though, B&G’s own Alex Hancock brought up a few points that made us think.
As I see it, Alex’s Ingram defense rests on two main points:
- Against Atlanta, the Saints did not run block very well.
- When Ingram is in the backfield, opposing defenses know he’s going to run the ball.
Here’s the thing: I agree with these points. I have no interest in piling on Ingram. I’m pretty agendaless.2 I liked the Ingram draft selection and still think he has a chance to succeed. The Atlanta game is too small a sample size to judge him for 2013, especially because of point A above: our offensive line did a pretty bad run blocking job.
Aforementioned is intended to dispel the notion that I just want to find some numbers that say Ingram sucks. I’ll give a few opinions based on the research you’re about to see, but you’ll see the same things I’m using to craft those opinions, so come up with your own and tell us about them.
We can’t do anything about the quality of the Saints’ run blocking other than pray and wait for Jahri Evans to dominate people. We can, however, talk about this idea that Ingram faces a natural disadvantage because we use him only when we intend to run the ball, meaning defenses can key on him and swarm to him and shut him down.
Here comes the research.3
The first thing I thought is you could just end the debate right here, because the rushing average for Saints running backs goes up the more the team passes while they are on the field. So if the defense can’t just anticipate the run, the running back has more success. Right?
The problem with that is there’s a glaring exception: With Chris Ivory on the field, the Saints were substantially more likely to run than they are even when Ingram is on the field, and he was far more successful than Ingram. What gives?
The easy answer is to just say Ivory is way better than Ingram, and that’s what most fans do, but I don’t want to leave it at that. I want to figure out what specific differences lead to Ivory having so much more success than Ingram in a role that was even more run-obvious than Ingram’s.
One way to see what’s holding Ingram back might be actually looking at him run the ball over the course of an entire game. Just so happens there’s an Ingram-specific highlight video for us to look at, so we can see what went wrong for him against the Falcons.
First Run (0:08, 3 yard gain)
This one looks set up pretty nicely. Big hole. Blockers on the second level. But see the big dude just across the blue line from Jahri Evans? He stuffs the hole and forces Ingram outside, where Ingram pushes admirably forward for a couple yards. Somebody seems to have missed a block: Maybe Evans took the wrong assignment.
Anyway, Ingram doesn’t do anything wrong here. If anything he takes a zero yard gain and makes it a two yard one. We’ll take that.
Second Run (0:16, 1 yard loss)
Fourth down. Line caves in. Ingram is screwed. Not a thing he could do, and not his fault.
Third Run (0:30, 7 yard gain)
Now we’re getting somewhere. The line blasts open a wonderful seam. Ingram gets to the second level untouched. There are blockers ahead of him. Everything has been well-executed. This is the kind of play that a running back often takes a long way. It’s at least a first down.
Except a defender reaches out and gets a hand on Ingram’s foot. Ingram trips and falls forward for a solid but unspectacular gain of about seven or so. Sometimes you just have bad luck like this. Sometimes a defender just succeeds on a desperate tackle attempt.
But actually this sort of thing seems to happen to Ingram a lot.
Fourth Run (0:42, 4 yard loss)
Line gets shoved back into his face. Hard to fault Ingram for anything here. He does string the run way outside when perhaps he could have found a cutback lane to minimize the lost yards, but this one isn’t on him.
Fifth Run (0:51, 2 yard gain)
This is a pretty good job by Ingram, actually. A quick cut inside allows him to slide through a small crease and gain a couple of yards. Nothing wrong with this run. Just one of those routine plays that every back must have in his repertoire.
Sixth Run (1:09, 2 yard gain)
This is a well-blocked play. The middle of the Falcons’ defensive line has been blown wide open. As Ingram tries to cut towards the hole and, in all likelihood, have his biggest gain of the day, he trips on his own feet.
More back luck? Another fluke? Maybe. But I’m starting to develop that opinion I promised you a few minutes ago.
Seventh Run (1:16, 3 yard gain)
Maybe Ingram could have cut back here, but I’m not a running back and I’m not a coach. He bounces outside and picks up three yards on first down. Again, nothing overtly bad about this play. Every running back will pick up three yards on first down sometimes. Most NFL runs are these in-between things that either team could call a win at the time of the play. It’s fine.
Eighth Run (1:29, 3 yard loss)
Ben Grubbs gets destroyed. Not Ingram’s fault. If anything, his effort here, even in a losing cause, is impressive and should be celebrated. The guy doesn’t quit.
Ninth Run (1:43, 2 yard gain)
This is a touchdown about to happen. The play is perfectly-blocked. The hole is huge. There’s blockers downfield and an easy lane to the endzone. But it’s not a touchdown because Falcons safety William Moore runs into Ingram, not just tackling him but knocking him clear off his feet so that he falls flat onto his hindquarters.
There’s no shame in being tackled by a safety coming at you with a head of steam. But then again, keeping your feet in a situation like this is the sort of thing that…well. Just a second.
I think my opinion is fully-formed now.
The Saints’ offensive line struggled. Ingram was hit in the backfield several times, losing eight yards on three negative rush attempts that were not in any way his fault.
But if there are three badly-blocked plays that cost him yards, there are also three very well-blocked plays of which Ingram himself failed to take advantage. Those three plays are the difference between a one yard per carry average and a four or five or six yards per carry average.
By breaking an ankle tackle, Ingram would have turned a seven yard gain into a double-digit gain. By not tripping over his own feet, Ingram would have turned a two yard gain into another double-digit gain. And by staying upright during his final run, Ingram would have added yet another double-digit gain, would have scored a touchdown, and would have effectively ended the game without further drama.
None of these plays, in isolation, is an indictment of Mark Ingram as a football player. But they are exactly the kinds of plays that Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory have made in the past. Pierre Thomas can–probably did, I’d bet, during this very game–break that kind of ankle tackle. And, rather than taking that William Moore hit, Chris Ivory probably would have delivered one.
These are standout qualities we’re talking about, and a back who lacks them is not necessarily a bad back. Ingram’s game has no obvious weaknesses. The issue is it has no major strengths, either. He doesn’t have Pierre Thomas’s balance or Chris Ivory’s power or Darren Sproles’s speed.
Former Southern Miss football coach Jeff Bower once said that the difference between the uninspiring running backs he had coached for several seasons during the early-00s and 2006 freshman phenom Damion Fletcher4 was that Fletcher took what his blockers gave him but then added more.
There is nothing wrong with taking what the field gives you. Mark Ingram just has trouble taking more. It’s possible that he’s still developing his skillset. After all, behind Alabama’s dominant lines, playing the Neolithic offensive style that dominates the thinking of SEC coaches like Nick Saban5, all Ingram had to do was take what was given to him. It wasn’t really possible for him to do more.
This isn’t Alabama, though. Ingram must find a way to turn missed opportunities into big plays, eliminating the negative attempts that aren’t his fault from our collective memory and punctuating the perfectly fine, routine two and three yard carries with excellence.
For Mark Ingram, the difference between success and failure might be as simple as a handful of broken tackles.