Saints revive offense with heavy dose of Alvin Kamara

METAIRIE, La. -- Coach Sean Payton didn’t specifically plan for running back Alvin Kamara to touch the ball on 11 of the New Orleans Saints' first 19 plays in Sunday’s 34-17 win at Tampa Bay (including a touchdown that was nullified by a penalty).

But it wasn’t an accident either.

Payton knew his offense needed a jolt after a dreadful loss to the Atlanta Falcons a week earlier. And what better player to provide it than the dynamic Kamara, who needed a bit of a jolt himself after ankle and knee injuries stalled the middle of his season?

“I don’t know if we went in with the opening set of plays saying, ‘All right, we need to get X number of touches here.’ It was really a byproduct of where we were situationally [with down and distance],” Payton said. “[But] different than a receiver sometimes, it’s a little bit easier to know that you’re gonna get a running back X number of plays.”

Kamara’s 14 offensive touches in the first half Sunday were the most of his career, according to ESPN Stats & Information. And that doesn’t include two other big plays nullified by penalties.

He finished with 13 carries for 75 yards and 10 catches for 47 yards. And he also returned three punts for 32 yards while filling in for the injured Deonte Harris.

That kind of workload is not necessarily a sign of things to come for Kamara.

Payton has stressed he likes the idea of keeping Kamara on a “pitch count” to keep him fresh for the long haul -- a philosophy that shouldn’t change much after Kamara was out because of knee and ankle injuries from Weeks 7-8. And once again, Payton commended fellow running back Latavius Murray on Monday and said both backs “are gonna be very involved in what we do."

But the Saints do understand the value of feeding Kamara when they need him.

Often that comes at the end of games when the Saints are in catch-up mode. In this case, it came at the beginning of a game when New Orleans was in makeup mode from the week before.

“Certainly, absolutely, there’s a lot of versatility there [with Kamara as a runner and receiver],” Payton said when asked if Kamara is a great option to get an offense going.

And when asked if he thinks Kamara looked healthy and fast and back to his usual self, Payton said, “I thought he played well. Absolutely.”

Kamara also said he feels as close to 100 percent as a player can at this stage of this season.

“I mean, I was good last week [too],” said Kamara, who returned to the Saints’ lineup after the Week 9 bye, but had four carries for 24 yards and eight catches for 50 yards in the loss to Atlanta while New Orleans repeatedly had drives stalled by sacks and penalties.

When asked if he knew Sunday would be a heavy workload day for him, Kamara said, “I just do what I do. If it’s heavy, it’s whatever. If it’s not, whatever. We won.”

That answer was pretty typical of Kamara’s approach to his playing time. He was more than happy to take on a major workload during Mark Ingram’s four-game suspension at the start of the 2018 season. But he has also never complained about splitting time with Ingram or Murray.

The Saints do still need to find more ways to get Kamara into the end zone, however.

He stunningly has two touchdowns this season after scoring 14 as a rookie in 2017 and 18 last year. And the entire offense, from Payton to Kamara to Drew Brees and Michael Thomas, all talked about how they still felt like they had left "too much meat on the bone" after Sunday’s win at Tampa Bay.

The holding penalty against Saints tight end Jared Cook that nullified Kamara’s potential 4-yard touchdown run in the first quarter was a lingering issue.

The Saints have scored on 22% of their first-quarter trips inside the red zone this year. And they rank second in the NFL with 15 offensive penalties in the first quarter.

"Self-inflicted wounds, unforced errors. We gotta clean that up,” Brees said. “If we want to be as good as I think we can be, we’ve gotta be better in that area."