Many critics decided the Saints didn’t do enough to get Alvin Kamara the ball against the Chiefs.
Sean Payton was accused of being uncreative or holding back by some, while others wondered if something was going on with the star running back. But neither thing could be further from the truth.
The reason is simple: Kamara didn’t get the ball more because the Chiefs threw as much as or more coverage at Kamara than anyone has before. With so many injuries to the Saints’ offense, Kansas City had a clear primary objective, and it executed that plan well.
The premise was simple: The Chiefs didn’t want Kamara getting any free releases into the flats, or easily getting open anywhere else. This meant chipping him and attacking him whenever he went out into this area of the field. The defensive ends were often more concerned with hitting Kamara than they were about getting after Drew Brees. Then, when Kamara got out of the backfield, safety Daniel Sorensen was there waiting for him.
We’ve seen other teams aggressively match up with Kamara, who finished with three catches for 40 yards on Sunday, by using a cornerback or another defensive back in coverage, but that’s often limited in scope and done primarily on third downs or obvious passing situations. Dallas did this during a 2018 game, but their approach wasn’t as aggressive, likely because the Saints had other receiving threats in that game. The Chiefs approached the game like this from start to finish.
There were multiple occasions where Kamara was essentially blitzed by a defensive end who broke his rush path to make contact with the running back before starting his rush. Frank Clark did this on one of the game’s first plays, which caused an incompletion on a swing pass.
Kansas City took a similar approach on Kamara’s first reception when he got hit by Michael Danna before getting open up the sideline for a gain of 5.
But those weren’t even the extreme moments. A lot of times, Kamara was bracketed by both a defensive end and a safety, or a defensive end would rush wide at him to force the running back to extend his route more toward the sideline, which threw the timing of the play off and allowed Sorensen to pick him up.
New Orleans had to get creative to find ways to Kamara the ball. In the red zone, with Sorensen matched up on Latavius Murray, the Saints put Kamara in motion behind the line of scrimmage and hit him on a shovel pass for a touchdown. But those opportunities were hard to come by given the level of attention paid to Kamara.
When things like this happen, there is often a moment of panic or wonder that someone figured something out against the Saints. That concern, long term, is likely invalid. Paying this much attention to one player once Michael Thomas and some of the other wide receivers are back on the field would be difficult. Someone could still do it, but it would make it incredibly easy for New Orleans to take advantage in other ways.
Only rushing three players and letting Brees sit in the pocket for three seconds nearly every play with his full array of weapons on the field would be an extreme luxury for the Saints. But with the way Kamara has played with Brees on the field this year, picking him as the player to stop even with everyone on the field isn’t a horrible idea.
This was absolutely one of the biggest surprises of the game, though. Kansas City hasn’t defended well against running backs in the passing game all year, and, if you studied its approach prior to this game, there were extreme vulnerabilities. Those closed with the extreme attention paid to Kamara.
Take it as a sign of respect. This might pop up again here or there, but it would be hard to pull off if everyone is back for the playoffs.