Fantasy Extra: Choosing the right Saint

When news of Darren Sproles' hand fracture surfaced before Week 9, Fantasy Football owners flocked to Pierre Thomas as the go-to replacement option.

But last week Thomas had just five carries -- third-highest on the team -- despite leading them in snaps played. Meanwhile, former first-round pick Mark Ingram led the Saints in carries in a close game against the Falcons but didn't have the best stats -- those belonged to Chris Ivory, who broke a long touchdown run for the second consecutive game.

A three-headed backfield is the kind of nightmare Fantasy owners shouldn't want any part of, but it's difficult to resist a running back in the New Orleans offense considering how many points it has the potential to put up from game to game, pretty much regardless of the opponent.

In an effort to try and make sense of what's going on in New Orleans, we broke down the playing time of the three backs from Week 10 against Atlanta.

Pierre Thomas
Mark Ingram
Chris Ivory
  Run Pass Run Pass Run Pass
1st & 10 3 6 10 3 3 2
2nd & 5+ 1 6 4 2 4 0
2nd & 4- 1 2 1 1 0 1
3rd & 5+ 0 7 1 0 0 0
3rd & 4- 0 1 0 1 0 0
Red Zone 0 2 2 1 0 0
Hurry up 1 7 0 0 0 0
Snaps 27 23 10

The first point to make is that on every run play listed above, the back received the carry. At no point did any two of these players play together. Fourth-string rusher Travaris Cadet occasionally shared the field with these guys in the game.

The next big-picture thought is that while Thomas had the most snaps, it is clear that he's who the Saints trust the most in pass protection and on passing plays, especially third-and-long and in the hurry-up offense. The one carry Ingram had on third down came at the end of the game when the Saints were trying to grind down the clock. It was one of two snaps Ingram had on third down while Ivory had none. Thomas is the Saints' passing downs back, which means a lot of playing time and some chances (not a ton) to make a play if downfield coverage isn't to Drew Brees' liking.

But when it came to first down, Ingram played and did the most. Ten of his 16 carries came on first downs. Ivory's first-down runs didn't even come until the second half and two of Thomas' three first-down runs came toward the tail end of the second and fourth quarters. In this game, Ingram was the Saints' primary rushing downs back.

Second downs were the wild card. Thomas had 10 snaps, Ingram had eight and Ivory had five. However, Ingram had five carries, Ivory had four (including his touchdown jaunt) and Thomas had two. There might not be much rhyme or reason as to how that broke down. Of Ivory's second-down plays he replaced Thomas once and Ingram twice -- the other two plays he was a part of on first down. It's noticeable that the Saints didn't have a ton of second-and-manageable plays (six total), but when it was second-and-five or more, Ingram and Ivory split eight of nine runs. A rational conclusion might be that Ivory was used when the team wanted to give Ingram a break.

The red-zone stats speak for themselves, though there weren't many red-zone plays for New Orleans in this game.

Fast forward

Just because the Saints leaned on their running backs a certain way against Atlanta doesn't entirely mean they'll do it again when they play at Oakland. Saints coach Joe Vitt dropped a hint in his Monday press conference suggesting that the coaches will re-evaluate Ivory's role. Vitt also said that the amount of carries and workload warranted per running back depended on the opponent and "will change on a weekly basis."

But Vitt didn't hide what he liked about Ivory's game.

"I think he's run over people since he's been here," Vitt said. "I think he is one of those backs that does a great job of running behind his pads. He is one of those backs that, at his size, can make you miss. At the same time, he can lower his pads and run over some people. He's always looking to get extra yards. I think what has been encouraging about Chris, you saw him switch the ball into the proper hand when he finished his touchdown run. Those are the little things that he has really worked on to become a better player. It's fun to watch and we're proud of him."

This is the same coach who referred to Mark Ingram as an "elite" running back a week ago, then gave him the most carries he's had since Week 2. No coach will knowingly tip his hand but if the Saints look back on the Falcons game (and the Eagles game the week prior) they'll see that there's more of a home-run threat with Ivory than there is with Ingram.

Here's what all of this means: It wouldn't be a surprise to see Ivory cut into Ingram's workload against the Raiders with Thomas continuing to work mostly on passing downs. That would mean Ivory would have the most upside of the Saints' running backs against a Raiders run defense that gave up four touchdowns to Doug Martin in their last home game and at least one rushing touchdown to a running back in three of their last four games. Though Ingram could still keep the goal-line role (or split it with Ivory), the reality is that Ivory shouldn't sneak up on anyone in Fantasy this week.

Enjoy it while it lasts -- once Darren Sproles comes back for the Saints, Vitt will reshuffle the deck yet again and re-assign roles to his rushers, and the Fantasy nightmares will start all over.

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Senior Fantasy Writer

Dave Richard has spent nearly his entire career covering the National Football League. Beginning with at the boom of the Internet, Richard was that site's first Fantasy Football writer before transitioning... Full Bio

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