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Is 26 rushes and zero targets the new normal for New Orleans Saints RB Alvin Kamara?

METAIRIE, La. – Alvin Kamara’s evolving role in the New Orleans Saints’ offense reached extreme levels last week.

The running back’s 26 carries against the New York Giants set a career high (one week after setting a high with 24 against the New England Patriots).

Meanwhile, his zero passing targets marked a career first. For the season, Kamara has 10 catches — less than Tennessee Titans bruiser, and NFL-leading rusher, Derrick Henry — after catching at least 81 in each of his first four seasons.

But he said he was pretty surprised to realize he didn’t have a single catch Sunday.

“I mean, it felt weird,” Kamara said. “That’s something I like to do, and I feel like we get some pretty explosive plays when I catch the ball. But I can’t be mad at running the ball and getting 100 yards and doing good things on offense.

“But my biggest thing is like last week, we lose, and like, ‘Dang, I didn’t catch the ball, is it my fault?’ I’m always looking for what I can do to help impact the game. … But I don’t call the plays. I don’t know, I’m just in limbo with things like that sometimes.”

Some of that is indeed the new normal for Kamara as the Saints (2-2) try and figure out their offensive identity with Jameis Winston at quarterback instead of recently retired Drew Brees.

“Maybe when the opportunity’s there, we’re not getting the look,” Kamara said. “(But) I’m not worried about any defense taking me away as a receiver. If it’s dialed up and called, you can’t tell me I won’t get at least one reception.”

And some of that should balance out when they aren’t leading by double digits in the second half so often or when they get receivers like Michael Thomas and Tre’Quan Smith back from injuries.

But the good news for Kamara’s fantasy managers is the Saints will keep getting the ball in his hands one way or another.

“He has to be one of the main focal points of what we do,” coach Sean Payton said.

Here’s a closer look at some of the factors in play:

Quarterback switch

Although Brees loved throwing to Kamara and previous dual-threat backs like Darren Sproles, Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas, that was never a big part of Winston’s history with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

However, as detailed this summer, Winston said he had never worked with a back as dynamic in the passing game as Kamara and insisted he would “make it a focal point to get him the ball.”

Winston said that mentality hasn’t changed, but defenses also consider Kamara a focal point.

“Alvin is probably my primary on most (throws) — and defenses know that. So it’s their job to take away my best player,” Winston said. “But when you take away my best player, and he’s still getting a (100 yards rushing) on you every week, that’s the best part of playing quarterback with a guy who is as versatile as him. Defenses fear him more in the passing game than they do in the running game. But I do believe that we’re doing some good things in the passing game that’s gonna open him up a little bit more with these weeks to come.”

Lack of other playmakers

This dates back to last season, when Thomas missed nine games with his ankle injury and was never fully healthy. Heading into Kamara’s historic six-TD game last Christmas, he had never had 20 carries in an NFL game. Now, he has done it in five of his last seven, including the playoffs.

His 27 touches in Week 3, 26 in Week 4 and 23 in Week 1 all rank among the 10 highest of his career.

New Orleans will have more options when Thomas and Smith return in the coming weeks, but they aren’t the only guys who have been missing from the Saints’ depleted offense. They also parted ways with running back Latavius Murray and pass catchers Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook as salary-cap cuts.

Then this past Sunday, they lost backup running back Tony Jones Jr. to an ankle injury early in the game, which led to an even more lopsided role for Kamara.

“When your second back is healthy, (Kamara is often) playing in three or four different receiver spots. That kind of shifted a little bit with Tony’s injury,” Payton said.

Game scripts

The Saints rank last with 22.5 pass attempts per game, while ranking third with 33.3 rushing attempts per game.

It’s hard to blame Payton too much for that approach, since it worked so well in Weeks 1 and 3 when they steamrolled the Green Bay Packers 38-3 and the Patriots 28-13. Naturally, Payton has a little more faith in Kamara, a standout offensive line and a usually-terrific defense than he does in Winston and New Orleans’ unproven pass catchers.

However, that approach backfired in Week 4 when the Saints blew a 21-10 lead in the fourth quarter while running a total of 39 times with 26 pass attempts.

As a result, the popular topic this week among critics has been whether Payton needs to trust Winston and “let him cook” more after he completed 17 of 23 passes for a season-high 226 yards and a touchdown.

“He just didn’t hand over the keys to Drew in their first four games,” Winston said. “This is a relationship that’s gonna build. And as obviously we find more of an identity offensively, we’re gonna have different things where he trusts me more in this situation and that situation.

“When you’ve got a guy like Alvin Kamara and you have trust in this dominant defense that we’ve had here, you have to be that way.”

Kamara’s pitch count

The other thing that has changed significantly for Kamara is the sheer volume of touches in any form.

Payton used to stress how much he liked Kamara’s “pitch count,” which was almost exactly 18 touches per game in 2018, 2019 and 2020 when he used to split time with veterans like Mark Ingram or Murray. This year, it has been 22 per game, with 53 over the past two weeks.

Kamara has always been asked about his touches and workload since he entered the league, but even after 26 carries he had fun with the question, like always.

“I’m still alive,” he said. “I’m good, I’m breathing, I feel fine.”

Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. both said they constantly monitor that between games and series to be smart for the long term.

Kamara has always seen the value in that, especially when he fought through knee and ankle injuries in 2019. But he has always embraced the idea of more touches, where his next chance will come at the Washington Football Team on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) before a bye week.

“I’m cool with it,” Kamara said. “I’ve always said that whenever the ball comes to me, however it comes to me, I’ll take advantage of the touches. I think the thing is just making sure they’re quality and they’re good looks.”

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