Lions' defense faces toughest test yet with 'dynamic, deceptive' Alvin Kamara up next
Remember Aaron Jones? Of course you do. How could you forget? Two weeks isn't long enough to shake that nightmare.
Before the Detroit Lions' snapped their 11-game losing streak last weekend against the Arizona Cardinals, Jones ran roughshod on Detroit's defense, racking up a career-best 236 yards from scrimmage in the Packers' 42-21 win.
In his fourth season, Jones has developed into one of the league's elite dual-threat running backs. But there's still one man ahead of him on the yardage list through three weeks, the gold standard of dual-threats, New Orleans' Alvin Kamara.
And he's on deck for the Lions.
For all the problems the Saints offense can cause a defense, none present a bigger challenge than Kamara, who is coming off a game where he caught 13 passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns.
While answering a question about cornerback Jeff Okudah during a video conference call on Tuesday, Lions defensive coordinator Cory Undlin dryly noted he didn't have time to go into the depth the query merited because "unfortunately I don't have time for that. I have to go cover Kamara."
Although the comment was made it jest, trying to scheme up ways to bottle the back up is likely going to cost Undlin a few extra hours of sleep this week.
When you roll the tape on Kamara, you might be surprised to learn the Saints don't wrap his usage in a lot of bells and whistles. More than 90% of the time he lines up in the backfield, and even though he can run a fairly complete route tree, most of his production comes off standard running back routes — flares, screens and dump-offs behind the line of scrimmage, or the occasional wheel or angle that takes him upfield.
But that's all Kamara needs to rank in the top five in the NFL in receptions (27), receiving yards (285) and receiving touchdowns (three). Pretty impressive given he's not receiver.
"He has tremendous speed," Lions coach Matt Patricia said. "Sometimes I think he’s deceptive on how fast he really is or how quick he’s moving. He’s such a smooth athlete that sometimes you may take a bad angle or poach angle and you see a lot of guys miss tackles on him, from that standpoint. You really have to do a great job to close that space, but just know how quick and dangerous he is to be able to cut across your face and get back into that open field."
Against Green Bay this past weekend, Kamara ran a lazy route into the left flat. It was clear he wasn't the first option, and probably not the second, but with nothing cooking downfield quarterback Drew Brees swung it out to the dynamic back.
Packers safety Will Redmond was right there as the ball arrived, but Kamara ran through the tackle attempt before avoiding a diving linebacker a few yards later. That's when the back's awareness kicked in and he decelerated, allowing the blocking to set up in front of him. He bounced off another would-be tackler at the 20-yard line before cutting back inside and waltzing into the end zone for the 52-yard score.
For the Saints, it's all about getting the ball to Karama quickly and getting it to him in space. He's slippery in the open field, already accounting for 15 missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus.
So if you're not right there to make an instant stop, he's liable to make you pay for it.
"I think his ability to handle space plays and be aware of what’s around him, I think is what makes him so dynamic," Patricia said. "In the routes, things like that out of the backfield, they may look like they’re not much, but he just gets a step and once he gets a step — and obviously with the accuracy of Brees — he can just accelerate into the open space very quickly. So it becomes very difficult.
"The guy’s speed is real, and you can’t fall asleep on him because he has those little stutter steps and skip steps that make you either overreact or fall asleep, and then he’s gone. It’s just that acceleration is very deceptive.”
And while we haven't really mentioned it, Kamara remains equally dangerous as a ball carrier. He's only averaging a little more than 10 rushing attempts per game, but he's netting 4.9 yards on those touches, including three scores.
The Lions defense is coming off its best performance of the season, by far, limiting the Cardinals' high-octane offense to 23 points. Within that successful outing, the opponent only managed to average 4 yards per carry on the ground.
If Detroit can maintain its momentum and limit the damage done by Kamara on Sunday, they'll have a good chance of netting a second win in as many weeks.