Return of ‘Matrix Mode’ – Alvin Kamara carrying an understaffed Saints offense

NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Saints led 14-7 last Sunday in Detroit, facing a fourth and 4 off the Lions’ 43-yard line early in the second quarter.

With the Saints also facing a potential 1-3 start to the season – and missing six starters due to injuries – coach Sean Payton said they had spent the entire week talking about the way they planned to be “very aggressive” in such situations. But only if they were confident they had the right set made up.

Well, if you’ve watched The Saints this season, you can guess who they dialed the number to.

Running back Alvin Kamara, who lined up as a receiver in the lunge, cut on the outside and beat cornerback Amani Oruwariye on the straight for a 29-yard gain.

The Saints (2-2) have been deprived of reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year Michael Thomas for the past three weeks after sustaining an ankle injury, and he was ruled by the team. for Monday night against the Los Angeles Chargers (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN) after the star receiver got into an argument with a teammate in practice over the weekend.

So to help fill the void, the Saints leaned heavily on Kamara – who could be the top favorite for this year’s Offensive Player of the Year award. Kamara led the NFL for four weeks with 557 scrimmage yards and seven touchdowns (the most in Saints history in four games and tied for most running backs since LaDainian Tomlinson had eight in 2005).

“I think the biggest key is with football’s No 1 wide receiver Alvin upped his level of play,” Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson said – referring to Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas , who has been sidelined since week 1 with an ankle injury.

Kamara also helped New Orleans solidify their six-point victory over the Lions with a 5-yard run on third and 3 at the end of the fourth quarter and tied their career high with 19 carries in the game.

“It’s really fun to watch. He just makes it feel like it’s going effortlessly – the way it looks like he’s sliding right over there. And when people come up to tackle him, they bounce off him,” said Tomlinson, now an NFL Network analyst. . “And then in the passing game, there’s no one out there who can cover it.”

“You know I told him before the season that I still have this record, 31 touchdowns [in 2006], and he can go and break it whenever he wants. And he laughed at it. But I was very serious about it – because if someone can do it, they can, because of the different ways they are able to score football. “

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Kamara’s 321 yards are third with a four-game Super Bowl-era flashback – behind Paul Hofer of the San Francisco 49ers (376 in 1980) and Kamara himself (336). in 2018).

And Kamara’s fantastic 127.7 points in the PPR leagues is the fifth most players since 1950 in the first four weeks, according to ESPN’s Tristan Cockroft – a list that includes all-time greats Jim Brown and Emmitt Smith and a double dose of Kamara.

“Alvin is amazing. He’s a special talent, a generational talent. His poise is unreal,” Saints left tackle Terron Armstead said. “Just his anticipation and the way he prepares his body to absorb the contact is like Black Panther.”

“We need someone like that,” Saints Receiver Tre’Quan Smith said of Kamara’s role while Thomas was away. “Someone who’s just going to put the team on their backs and make a play.”

No longer playing on “one leg”

There are a number of traits that make Kamara “a black panther”. But the most important is his health.

Kamara described himself as playing on “one leg” and about 75% healthy over the last three months of last season, after coming back from missing two games with an MCL sprained knee. He also battled an ankle injury in 2019 and finished with a minimum of 1,330 career yards and six touchdowns.

But now that he’s back to full health, Kamara reminds everyone of the player who won the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award in 2017 and scored 32 touchdowns in his first two seasons. .

“I think we’ve all seen him play here over the last few weeks that we’re used to seeing,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “And yet, at the same time, it’s like there’s this extra equipment. Like there’s this extra juice. You see defenders taking angles on him that seem like they can play, and all of a sudden. suddenly he gets to the edge or he breaks the tackle or whatever, and you just shake your head.

“He’s a special athlete, a special talent.”

Kamara’s signature play this year was a sensational 52-yard touchdown against the Green Bay Packers in Week 3, which he caught up behind the line of scrimmage and ultimately turned into a scoreless scoreline. at least five defenders.

It was reminiscent of what Kamara once described as being in “Matrix mode” seeing the terrain as if it was in slow motion and mapping all those missed tackles by “downshifting” and “climbing.”

“Yeah, I’m back on the beat,” Kamara said. “Obviously last year we talked about it, I was injured. A lot of these things that I normally do, I couldn’t do. I couldn’t really move the way I wanted to, I couldn’t be too physical that I wanted.

“So now that I’m healthy, I’m getting back to my normal self and feeling good.”

Tomlinson said he liked to hear this comparison of “The Matrix” because he has used the same description in the past.

“I think at some point a runner gets to a place where they slow down – but not only that, you can see things happen two stages before they happen,” said Tomlinson, who also commended Kamara for the unique balance workouts he has performed. saw him do it in the offseason.

“You can see the safety go down and he’s going to try to fill that hole. And after a while you start playing with these guys out there on the pitch. And I think that’s what Alvin is referring to when he says he’s not always full speed, because it’s a cat and mouse game that sometimes you play with these guys to make them think you’re going to be in one place. “

ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Louis Riddick said the way the Saints depend on Kamara “speaks to his full game.”

“Running football, those indoor-outdoor areas, throws, he’s got great vision, he’s got great feet behind the line of scrimmage, he’s got really good acceleration, great contact balance,” said Riddick. ” He does not have [4.3-second speed in the 40-yard dash], it’s not going to wow people in the open field, but it’s still pretty fast. And then in the passing game, I mean, he can run roads like a wide receiver, he can catch them out of the backfield, he can split like a wide receiver, he has soft hands, he has a good sense of the coverage area.

“I mean, he can do anything.”

Manage your workload

Kamara (5-10, 215 pounds) fell in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft because he failed to post astonishing numbers while splitting the time in the Tennessee backfield and failed turns heads with a 40 scout combine time of 4.56 seconds.

But his poise has always been elite, which is a big reason he’s had 17 broken tackles this year, according to Pro Football Reference (he had 25 in his first four games last year before finishing with 39. , and he had 28 in 2018).

“The only trait that until you see it on the ground [you may not appreciate] is his physical balance. He has a skill set that can break away from contact and stay very upright, and that gets tough to tackle. So there’s a size or element of strength that maybe is undervalued with him, ”said Payton, who enjoys creating lags with such a powerful runner / receiver.

“We’re still looking for a way maybe to have it [matched up against] someone they are uncomfortable with, ”he added.

At the same time, Payton is careful not to abuse Kamara, who split his time with Mark Ingram in 2017 and ’18 and Latavius ​​Murray in 2019 and ’20.

That hasn’t changed this season, even after the Saints signed a lucrative contract extension with Kamara, worth $ 50 million in new money over the first four years and up to $ 75 million. dollars over five years.

Kamara’s 20 touches per game are only slightly above his 18.2 average over the past two seasons. And his 41.25 snaps per game are actually a little lower than his 41.9 average over the past two seasons.

“There’s a great midrange there, obviously. Latavius ​​is playing well. The two complement each other,” Payton said. “And here’s one of the great things I can say about Alvin: He’s very selfless. If he scores or someone else scores you’ll see that big smile. He’s gonna run over there. [to celebrate]. And that’s something that in football today is refreshing – and certainly as a coach is appreciated. “

Kamara is still selfish in the name of his position group, however.

He said he enjoyed Sunday’s game, when the Saints had 42 team races – their most since 2018.

“My tone and my message to our [running back] play each week is: ‘Take it through us’. Let the game flow through us. Get Sean to give us the ball, ”Kamara said. “We have the best O-line in the league, and when these guys are going out it’s hard to stop them. “

Kamara said he didn’t really feel like he had anything to prove this year after his stats dropped a bit in 2019 and his value was dissected during his contract talks with the Saints.

“I mean, if you know, you know,” Kamara said.

While there is constant debate about the value of a running back in the NFL, Riddick said Kamara quickly silenced any doubts about the Saints’ investment.

“Alvin is someone who if you didn’t have him in that offense right now you would be in trouble. So he’s already established what his value and importance is to this team,” said Riddick, a former executive. from the NFL front office. . “So they made the right choice, there’s no question about it. And I think it would have the same effect regardless of which team he was on.”


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