It’s not an entirely new concept.
The New Orleans Saints often have a slot receiver run an out-and-up route, with the guy who flanks him taking off on a go route. It’s an effective look against two-safety shells. The deep player either bites on the out, freeing up the guy on the go route, or the safety goes with the go route, leaving the other receiver in one-on-one coverage when he turns up the field.
And the Saints aren’t doing anything new by using a running back on one of those routes out of an empty set. New Orleans used this route concept six times last season and at least three times this year. On two of those plays in 2016, former running back Travaris Cadet ran one of the deep routes.
Something is a little different this year.
The Saints now have a running back who can not only run those routes like a receiver but also catch the ball like a receiver. Examples of how Alvin Kamara is changing this offense show up every week. But anyone who watched the Saints play the Bears on Oct. 29 saw what kind of matchup problem he creates.
Kamara lined up as an inside receiver and quickly beat the linebacker who was covering him up the field on an out-and-up route. The outside receiver, Michael Thomas, running a go, initially froze the safety, making it look as though Brees could hit Kamara deep. But the safety pulled off, and Brees threw the ball short, to Kamara’s outside shoulder, which caused the running back to adjust and turn back to make the catch.
The degree of difficulty on the play would be high for any receiver, let alone a running back — but Kamara walked off the field with a gain of 31 yards. And like any good receiver, he gave all the credit to his quarterback.
“It’s Drew. It never ceases to amaze,” Kamara said. “He puts balls in places where you have no choice but to catch it. He throws it to your hands.”
Kamara, who has 37 catches for 341 yards this season, is one of those players who offer the conundrum that every offensive coordinator wants to create for defenses with running backs and tight ends: Do you defend him with a safety or a linebacker?
There’s no right answer, and in Kamara’s case, with his ability to run deep routes, there are probably times when the defense wishes it could put an extra cornerback on the field.
That, of course, is not a feasible option, but that’s the kind of player the third-round pick is quickly becoming for this offense. He can line up anywhere on the field in any personnel package, run any route, and it doesn’t hurt that he leads all qualified players by averaging 6 yards per carry. The only thing he hasn’t done is take a snap at tight end, like Darren Sproles once did during the 2011 season.
This was the vision for Kamara. He didn’t run many routes in games while at Tennessee. He did it during practice, but when it mattered, he merely ran a steady dose of screens and out routes.
When Saints coach Sean Payton went to scout Kamara before the draft, Payton had the running back show off his route tree and then worked to expand it during organized team activities and training camp this summer. So far, it hasn't been limited at all.
Like any running back in the Saints offense, Kamara runs a lot of screens and flat routes (47 total this season), outs (28), curls (15) and go routes (12). But he’s also gotten deeper into the route tree, something that has progressed as the season has carried on.
“Every week, we probably look to expand maybe the menu of what he’s able to do, maybe some of the routes we ask him to run,” quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi said during a recent WWL radio appearance. “And every week he keeps responding. Man, it’s nice to have a player like that.”
It’s hard to argue that Kamara was limited when he ran a corner route — typically reserved for wide receivers — out of the backfield against the Vikings in Week 1. But he is running new routes seemingly every week.
There was a fade against Green Bay. A hitch-and-go against Chicago. The out-and-ups against Chicago and Minnesota. A post and seam route against Green Bay. Slants against the Patriots.
The diversity shows up all over the field. Of his routes, 71 have come from the backfield, 30 from the slot and 26 split out wide. So far, Kamara says the process is going well.
“It’s feeling good,” Kamara said. “Just being able to keep getting that work with Drew and the offense and be able to lock in on things like that I maybe wasn’t locked in on in the first game. Just knowing what’s being asked of me and being able to execute.”
During the offseason, Payton told The Advocate that the evolution in the offense had been the result of the running backs and tight ends he has on the roster. When those players can do different things, it changes how the Saints call, and design plays.
That process has continued with Kamara, who has shown the ability to handle most of the route tree, and the coaching staff spends a lot of times figuring out how to do new things with him.
“Certainly, we spend time on things we think he does well, plays that we feel like he can handle and do well,” Payton said. “Any time you have a new piece to your equation, I think it’s important you look closely at what their strengths are and try to build on them.”
If you don’t think the Saints are excited about their third-round pick, go back and watch the touchdown Kamara scored on a screen pass against Tampa Bay.
Keep an eye on the sideline. As the running back breaks a tackle and makes his way to the end zone, you can see Payton racing down the field with his arms stretched to the sky. As Kamara enters the end zone, the coach emphatically pumps his fist.
It’s hard to hide emotions when a rookie is doing this well.