Saints' Ingram wants 1,000 yards rushing to cap career year

METAIRIE, La. (AP) One of the most important games of Mark Ingram's college football career took place in the same stadium where he'll have an opportunity on Sunday to hit a significant milestone as a pro.

Ingram needs 60 yards rushing in Atlanta to hit 1,000 for the first time since the New Orleans Saints made a trade to select him late in the first round of the 2011 draft.

''It would mean a lot,'' Ingram said. ''Every running back wants to rush for 1,000 yards.''

Ingram might have wrapped up the 2009 Heisman Trophy when he led Alabama to the Southeastern Conference championship over the Florida Gators in Atlanta, rushing for 113 yards to go with 76 yards receiving.

As fate would have it, he'll also complete what has been his best season yet as a pro in the last regular-season NFL game the Georgia Dome ever hosts.

In addition to his 940 yards and five TDs rushing, Ingram has 290 yards and four TDs receiving. His 1,230 yards from scrimmage represent a career best for a single season and his nine total TDs scored have tied his career high, set in 2014, when all nine came on the ground.

That's more like the production the Saints always expected, but was slow to come earlier in his career for a variety of reasons - from injuries to his role in an offensive system that often features Drew Brees' passing.

The Saints have not had a 1,000 yard rusher since Deuce McAllister's last healthy season in 2006, also the first year the Saints were coached by Sean Payton.

''Everyone hopes that when they come in as a rookie they can ... be a perennial 1,000 yard rusher, but that just hasn't been the case,'' Ingram said.

''The way we run our offense, the way we spread the ball around hasn't allowed a lot of backs to run for 1,000. It's just lots of different scenarios and lots of different things - health, lots of different things.''

Averaging 5.1 yards per carry this season, Ingram might have easily surpassed 1,000 yards if he had more than 185 carries.

But New Orleans tends to rotate running backs. This season, Ingram has split time with Tim Hightower, who has 130 carries.

''We're very well aware of what Mark needs to get to 1,000 and it's a big goal for us,'' Saints right tackle Zach Strief said.

''If he's a featured guy getting another 100 carries a year, he's on par with the leaders of the league and that's how we see him.''

Putting stats aside, Falcons coach Dan Quinn said Ingram's quality has met the eye test while studying Saints game video.

''He is one that we have certainly highlighted in our meeting rooms. You better have your tackling plan right and it looks to me that the drive to run through tackles and keep his legs going on contact is just as good as you could hope for,'' Quinn said. ''There might be a play that might get blocked for 5 (yards) and he ends up getting 10.

''Very few guys have over a 5-yard average in our league and we all know how difficult that can be,'' Quinn continued. ''It shows you that he's not just short runs and moving the chains. To have that kind of average, you have the explosive runs.''

Brees, meanwhile, has enjoyed seeing Ingram evolve not just as a runner, but someone he can rely on in the passing game, either as a blocker or receiver.

''There is a high level of confidence I have when he is back there, whether it be with running the football or in pass protection, or knowing that he is coming out of the backfield and he is one-on-one with a linebacker or safety,'' Brees said.

''He is going to make a good decision on a choice route or something like that, and make the catch or catch a screen pass and have the ability to take it to the house.''

Brees added that he finds it ''pretty rare'' for running backs ''to have all of those qualities -but he's got them.''

Notes: Rookie cornerback Ken Crawley (knee) was the only Saints player to miss practice on Thursday. ... Those listed as limited included linebackers Dannell Ellerbe (foot) and Craig Robertson (shoulder), center Max Unger (foot) and fullback John Kuhn (hip).

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