Before Stefon Diggs made his miracle catch, before New Orleans Saints kicker Wil Lutz hit the go-ahead field goal, and before Kai Forbath gave the Minnesota Vikings the lead with a field goal of his own, Drew Brees threw a go-ahead touchdown pass in last year’s NFC Divisional Playoff that seemed, at the time, like it might be the contest’s defining snap.
Alvin Kamara, New Orleans’ third-round rookie selection, lined up as Brees’ lone running back. He motioned into the right slot and ran a wheel route against covering linebacker Eric Kendricks. Despite solid coverage by Kendricks, Kamara made a backpedaling catch in the end zone to give the Saints the lead. He ended the day with 105 all-purpose yards, but his touchdown catch got lost in the shuffle of a frenetic ending that went down in Vikings lore.
Kamara remains a threat, however, and is wreaking havoc on defenses in 2018 with his versatility as a runner and a pass catcher. He is third in the league in receiving yards amongst running backs with 362, behind only Saquon Barkley and James White. He is fifth in the league in first-down runs with 25, averaging 4.6 yards per carry for the season with 363 yards overall.
“He’s a good runner. He reminds me of Eric Dickerson the way he runs,” said Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer. “He’s got a little bit of an upright lean, but he’s physical, catches the ball well out of the backfield, got good stop-and-starts.”
And then a joking lament from the head coach.
“None of my players know who Eric Dickerson is.”
But even the Hall of Famer Dickerson was rarely used as a pass catcher as much as Kamara. In an overtime win over the Atlanta Falcons in Week 3, Kamara was targeted 20 times, made 15 catches for 124 yards and added 16 carries for 66 yards on the ground.
Five of Kamara’s catches in that game came with him lined up as a receiver — twice out wide and three times in the slot.
His 826 receiving yards last year led all running backs, and he led the league in yards per carry by a wide margin at 6.1. Dion Lewis was the next closest running back at 5.0.
“I think he presents problems in terms of personnel,” said linebacker Kentrell Brothers. “He can be used as either a receiver or a running back, so some teams treat him as a receiver, some teams treat him as a running back. Just determining where he’s going to be is the real problem.”
Kamara has averaged 11 snaps per game where he lines up as a wide receiver, per Pro Football Focus. Last season the Tennessee product had similar usage lining up on the perimeter but played just 29 snaps per game as he shared work with Mark Ingram all season and Adrian Peterson for the first four weeks.
This year, Kamara was virtually a solo act for four weeks as Ingram served a four-game suspension. Kamara played at least 50 snaps in each game and was devastatingly effective, averaging 153 all-purpose yards.
Since Ingram was reintroduced in Week 5, neither back has been as efficient. Ingram has averaged just 3.0 yards per carry, and Kamara has totaled 39 and 75 total yards, respectively, while seeing his snaps reduced in the last two games.
Zimmer still sees Ingram as a valuable complement in the Saints run game.
“He’s a physical downhill runner,” Zimmer said. “He helps in protection a little bit more. I think it helps in their packages because they can have Ingram and Kamara in the backfield at the same time.”
Kamara being on the field creates potential mismatches, however. As Kendricks found out the hard way in the playoffs, a linebacker doesn’t want to be isolated across from the shifty Kamara in space.
“If you study, you should be able to know what he’s gonna do from where he is,” said Brothers. “You can tell, if they’ve got the man lined up outside the tackle box, but he’s in the backfield, obviously he’s gonna get out on a scat or some type of wheel route or option on the [middle linebacker], so you’ve just got to know where your help is and what routes are coming.”
Zimmer raved Wednesday about the unpredictability of Sean Payton’s Saints offense, calling it “indiscriminate.” Eight different players have run the ball in their six games this season, and 16 players have caught at least one pass.
“[He’ll] call anything at any time — call anything,” Zimmer said. “Second and one, he might be in no backs. Play-action shots on the first possession, it doesn’t matter. Formations, movements, personnel groupings, he doesn’t care. I don’t think he cares about down and distance.”
And Kamara, their leader in yardage, has been one of Payton’s more insuppressible weapons.