Vikings will face a different Alvin Kamara, Saints defense this time around

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Ahead of the Vikings' season opener against the New Orleans Saints in September, Minnesota’s game plan wasn’t centered on stopping running back Alvin Kamara. The rookie wasn’t dominating the conversation among Minnesota defenders, who had their focus on what Adrian Peterson could do in his first game in a non-Vikings uniform and how they would slow down the likes of Michael Thomas, Mark Ingram and, of course, Drew Brees.

“I think we mentioned him [Kamara],” Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr recalled, “but we didn’t really know too much about him other than he was a pretty... I think he went to Tennessee? He was pretty effective at Tennessee.”

Kamara wasn’t an afterthought, per se, but he wasn’t exactly drawing all of Minnesota’s attention. After all, there wasn’t much film of him to scout off. It wasn’t until Week 3 that Kamara scored his first rushing touchdown. Then he started to break through six weeks into the season -- during a stretch in which he averaged 7.98 yards every time he touched the ball -- that teams took notice.

In the early part of the season, the entire Saints backfield looked a lot different than it does now. Kamara took 31 snaps in that first game against Minnesota, followed by Ingram with 26 and Peterson with nine, most of which came out of single-back sets. Now, months after Peterson’s subsequent departure to the Arizona Cardinals, New Orleans’ rushing attack is one of the most potent in the NFL, with 52 percent of its offensive yards from scrimmage in the regular season coming from its core of running backs -- the most in the NFL.

Kamara and Ingram were the first running-back duo to each surpass 1,500 yards from scrimmage for the same team in the same season. Kamara, and NFL Rookie of the Year contender, has played a major role in how Brees has changed the way he distributes the ball.

“They use him a little bit more, spread him out of the backfield a little bit more,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said of Kamara. “They use him as a receiver some; he catches the ball some on screens. But he’s in the backfield, as well. He played against us the first game, but I guess they’re using his abilities a little bit more now.”

When the Vikings host the Saints in a rematch of that Week 1 game on Sunday in the NFC divisional round, it’s not just New Orleans’ run game that will operate differently than it did in its 2017 debut.

The Saints ranked dead last in pass defense through the first two games of the season, allowing an average of 388.5 passing yards. They wound up finishing 19th, with a defensive efficiency of 53.9. That’s a stark contrast from the period of 2014-16, during which they had the worst defensive efficiency rating in the league (29.9).

Sam Bradford carved through New Orleans’ pass defense in the Week 1 matchup, going 8-of-9 for 219 yards and a touchdown on throws of 15 yards or more downfield, according to ESPN Stats & Information data.

From Week 3 on, the Saints have contained opposing offenses to a 33 percent completion rate on passes of that distance, dropping the average of those catches from 24.9 yards to 9.1 yards. A pair of rookie defensive backs -- cornerback Marshon Lattimore and free safety Marcus Williams -- were a big part of that turnaround, totaling nine of the Saints’ 20 interceptions.

While all of these changes have occurred for New Orleans over the past four months, Brees has remained the staple of the league’s most explosive offense.

The Panthers dared Brees to beat him in the wild-card round, and he took Carolina to task to the tune of 376 passing yards and two touchdowns. His accuracy and quick release are among some of the toughest challenges he presents.

“You can have a guy covered, and I think you saw last night there was a tight end down the seam,” Barr said. “The guy was pretty locked up, and he threw a back-shoulder [pass] to him perfectly. Those are things you think you have perfect position, until you’re not.”

This season, Brees set the single-season record for completion percentage (72.0) and led the NFL in yards per attempt during the regular season with 8.1. The last time he faced the Vikings' defense, Brees struggled to connect with his No. 1 wide receiver; Thomas was held in check by Xavier Rhodes, as his eight catches yielded just 45 yards.

A performance like the one Brees had against the Panthers strings together all the qualities of the 11-time Pro Bowler. Carolina forced the signal-caller to throw the ball, sending in a blitz 16 times, the most he has ever faced in a postseason game with the Saints. A week shy of his 39th birthday, Brees made the Panthers pay in a game that displayed all of the qualities that helped him rise to an elite category over his 17-year career; he made make sharp passes in and out of the pocket, without the help of his normally proficient rushing attack.

“He’s won a Super Bowl, he’s been the MVP, he’s thrown for millions of yards,” Zimmer said. “I think all those things kind of sum up what he does.”