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Return of ‘Matrix Mode’: Alvin Kamara carrying undermanned Saints offense

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

Since the Saints were also facing a potential 1-3 start to the season — and missing six starters due to injuries — coach Sean Payton said they spent the whole week talking about how they planned to be “very aggressive” in such situations. But only if they were confident they had the right play dialed up.

Well, if you’ve been watching the Saints at all this season, you can guess whose number they dialed.

Running back Alvin Kamara, who lined up as a receiver in the slot, cut to the outside and beat cornerback Amani Oruwariye down the right sideline for a 29-yard gain.

Drew 🎯 AK on 4th down!

⛓ Chain movers ⛓

📺 @NFLonFOX // 📱 #Saints App pic.twitter.com/7faE5PCBW9

— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) October 4, 2020

The Saints (2-2) have been without the NFL’s reigning Offensive Player of the Year, Michael Thomas, for the past three weeks after he suffered an ankle injury, and he’s been ruled out by the team for Monday night against the Los Angeles Chargers (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN) after the star wide receiver had an altercation with a teammate at practice this weekend.

So to help fill the void, the Saints have leaned heavily on Kamara — who might be the early front-runner for this year’s Offensive Player of the Year award. Kamara lead the NFL through four weeks with 557 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns (the most in Saints history through four games and tied for the most by any running back since LaDainian Tomlinson had eight in 2005).

“I think that’s been the biggest key is with the No. 1 wide receiver in football out, Alvin has raised his game,” Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson said — referring to Saints receiver Michael Thomas, who has been sidelined since Week 1 with an ankle injury.

Kamara also helped New Orleans cement its six-point victory over the Lions with a 5-yard run on third-and-3 late in the fourth quarter and matched his career high with 19 carries in the game.

Can Alvin Kamara break LaDainian Tomlinson’s record of 31 TDs in a season? “If anyone can do it, he can,” Tomlinson said. AP Photo/Brett Duke

“It’s been really fun to see. He just makes it look effortless — the way it seems like he’s just gliding out there. And when people come to tackle him, they bounce off of him. And then in the passing game, there is nobody out there that can cover him,” said Tomlinson, now an NFL Network analyst. “And then in the passing game, there is nobody out there that can cover him.”

“You know, I told him before the season that I still had that record, 31 touchdowns (in 2006), and he can go and break it whenever he’d like. And he laughed about it. But I was dead serious about it — because if anyone can do it, he can, because of the different ways he’s able to score the football.”

Kamara’s 321 receiving yards are the third most by a running back through four games in the Super Bowl era, according to ESPN Stats & Information — behind the San Francisco 49ers’ Paul Hofer (376 in 1980) and Kamara himself (336 in 2018).

And Kamara’s 127.7 fantasy points in PPR leagues are the fifth most of any player since 1950 through 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.

Most PPR fantasy points by any player through his team’s first four games of the season (since 1950):

136.1 Alvin Kamara, 2018
133.7 Jim Brown, 1958
133.5 Wes Welker, 2011
130.3 Emmitt Smith, 1995
127.7 Alvin Kamara, 2020

— Tristan H. Cockcroft (@SultanofStat) October 4, 2020

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

“We need somebody like that,” Saints receiver Tre’Quan Smith said of Kamara’s role during Thomas’ absence. “Somebody who’s just gonna put the team on his back and make a play.”

No longer playing on ‘one leg’

There are a number of traits that make Kamara “Black Panther-like.” But the most important one is his health.

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

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

“I think we’ve all seen him make some plays 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 gear. Like there’s this extra juice. You see defenders take angles on him that look like they’re gonna be able to make the play, and all of a sudden he gets to the edge or he breaks the tackle or whatever it might be. 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 catch against the Green Bay Packers in Week 3, which he caught behind the line of scrimmage and eventually turned into a score by making at least five defenders miss.

ALVIN. KAMARA.

RIDICULOUS.

📺: #GBvsNO on NBC
📱: NFL app // Yahoo Sports app: https://t.co/VANJXsXuUh pic.twitter.com/u6vwg3ViGh

— NFL (@NFL) September 28, 2020

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

“Yeah, I’m back in rhythm,” Kamara said. “Obviously last year, we’ve talked about it, I was injured. A lot of those things that I normally do, I couldn’t do. Couldn’t really move how I wanted to, couldn’t be as physical as I wanted to.

“So now that I’m healthy, I’m just kind of returning back to my normal self and feeling good.”

Tomlinson said he loved hearing that “Matrix” comparison because he has used the same description in the past.

YearPlayerRec. Yds.1980Paul Hofer3762018Alvin Kamara3362020Alvin Kamara3211988Paul Palmer3152011Matt Forte3101985Lionel James305

“I think at a certain point a runner gets to a place where it does slow down — but not only that, you can see things happen two steps before it happens,” said Tomlinson, who also commended Kamara for the unique balance workouts he has seen him do in the offseason.

“You can see the safety coming down and he’s gonna try to fill this hole. And after a point, you start playing games with these guys out there on the field. And I believe that’s what Alvin is referring to when he says he’s not always at full speed, because it’s a game of cat and mouse that sometimes you play with these guys to make them think you’re gonna be in one spot.”

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

“Running the football, those inside-outside zones, tosses, he’s got excellent vision, he’s got great feet behind the line of scrimmage, he’s got very good acceleration, great contact balance,” Riddick said. “He doesn’t have (4.3-second speed in the 40-yard dash), he’s not gonna blow people away in the open field, but he still is plenty fast enough. And then in the passing game, I mean, he can run routes like a wide receiver, he can catch ’em out of the backfield, he can split out like a wide receiver, he’s got soft hands, he’s got a great feel for zone coverage.

“I mean, he can do it all.”

Managing his workload

Kamara (5-foot-10, 215 pounds) fell to the third round of the 2017 NFL draft because he didn’t put up astounding numbers while splitting time in Tennessee’s backfield and didn’t turn heads with a 40 time of 4.56 seconds at the scouting combine.

play

0:22

Alvin Kamara shows off his intense workout, combining balance and hand-eye coordination.

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

“The one trait that until you see him on the field (you may not appreciate) is his physical balance. He’s got a skill set that can come off contact and stay very upright, and that becomes challenging to tackle. So there’s a size or a strength element that’s maybe undervalued with him,” said Payton, who loves to create mismatches with such a potent runner/receiver.

“We’re always looking for a way maybe to get him (matched up against) someone they’re uncomfortable with,” he added.

At the same time, Payton is careful not to overuse Kamara, who split 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 Kamara to a lucrative contract extension, which is worth $50 million in new money over the first four years and up to $75 million over five years.

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

“There’s a great medium there, obviously. Latavius is playing well. The two of them complement each other,” Payton said. “And here is one of the great things I can say about Alvin: He’s very unselfish. If he scores or if someone else scores, you’re gonna see that big smile. He’s gonna be running over there (to celebrate). And that’s something that in today’s football is refreshing — and certainly as a coach is appreciated.”

Kamara after @LataviusM scored his 2nd TD 😂@budlight | #CellyCelly pic.twitter.com/THBBvgW1UR

— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) October 4, 2020

Kamara is still selfish on behalf of his position group, however.

He said he loved Sunday’s game, when the Saints had 42 carries as a team — their most since 2018.

“My tone and my message to our (running back) room every week is, ‘Make it run through us. Make the game flow through us. Make Sean give us the ball,'” Kamara said. “We’ve got the best O-line in the league, and when those guys get going it’s hard to stop them.”

Kamara said he didn’t really feel like he had anything to prove coming into this year after his stats were down 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.

Although there is a constant debate about how much any running back is worth in the NFL, Riddick said Kamara has quickly silenced any doubts about the Saints’ investment.

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

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