FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – If Panthers running back Christian McCaffery gave the Falcons' defense headaches, it's scary to think of what Saints running back Alvin Kamara could do.
McCaffrey led all Panthers players with 22 touches and 139 yards against a Falcons defense that was missing Deion Jones and Keanu Neal, and it's not a hot take to say Kamara is an even more dangerous weapon.
The 2017 NFL Rookie of the Year, Kamara's 1,901 combined yards were the third-most in the league last season behind only Todd Gurley and Le'Veon Bell. In his lone full game against the Falcons last year Kamara was held to 90 total yards, but Jones' speed at middle linebacker was a large factor in that.
The Falcons still have speed at linebacker with Duke Riley, but the relative inexperience of Atlanta's defense without Jones and Neal showed in the win against the Panthers.
Both the Panthers and Saints utilize their running backs' versatility to great extent, designing plays meant to put pressure on second-level players to make plays in space against dynamic athletes.
Carolina constantly did just that against Atlanta, picking up chunks of yards off of designed screens like the one below.
On that play, the Panthers isolate Riley out in space against right guard Tyler Larsen, allowing McCaffrey to make a cut based on the block. McCaffrey then breaks through Jordan Richards' tackle attempt before Derrick Shelby makes the tackle from behind.
The Saints utilize Kamara in much the same way, finding opportunities to get him the ball in space. But while McCaffrey might be a bit more agile as a route-runner, Kamara is tougher to bring down when he has the ball in his hands.
What makes Kamara and McCaffrey a bit different from some other pass-catching running backs around the league is that they don't just catch passes from out of the backfield.
"This new backfield of running backs/wide receivers kind of thing, just having a running back be able to run the ball and also get out in the field and make catches and make people miss in the open field is more of a threat," Falcons safety Ricardo Allen. "You start seeing everybody deep and you check it down to a running back who's fairly good at making people miss. If you get a little zone, that's great for them."
Like Atlanta's own running backs, Kamara is often flexed out wide in the Saints' offense and can make plays further down the field or in the flats.
The Saints' offense doesn't just rely on Kamara, however, which makes it that much more difficult to defend. If a team locks in on stopping Kamara, Brees can go over top to Michael Thomas or Ted Ginn Jr. and hit a 40-yard play downfield. If a defense plays deep to stop the long pass, Kamara is an easy option underneath the coverage.
"Oftentimes when there's one player that you can key in on, that's something that most defenses are pretty equipped for," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "But when you have multiple players to account for, that definitely changes the game."
One of the biggest plays of the game for Carolina occurred because of McCaffrey's abilities as a receiver and check-down option for Cam Newton.
The Falcons' defense dropped into zone coverage after a play-action by the Panthers, and McCaffrey slips into an un-defended area and is wide open with a lot of room to run.
Kamara also offers Drew Brees an enticing check-down option, but the Saints have certain routes against different coverages that get their back involved in favorable matchups. McCaffrey came open in the flats because nothing was open downfield, the Saints run plays designed to get Kamara open in the flats against zone coverage.
There's a reason McCaffrey was so heavily utilized against the Falcons, it's because Atlanta's defense is designed to keep the play in front of them. This often means short receiver routes and passes to the running backs.
According to Anthony Amico of The Action Network, no team has allowed more targets or receptions to running backs than the Falcons. With athletic players like Jones, Riley and De'Vondre Campbell at linebacker the thought is to allow the short completion and then swarm to make the tackle at the spot where the catch is made.
Of course against a player of Kamara's caliber, that can be a risky proposition. The Saints want to get the ball in their running back's hands, and the Falcons are built to let that happen. From there, it's a matter of getting him on the ground, which isn't exactly easy.
"It still causes a challenge," Allen said. "It causes a challenge when you have your best players in there. It is what it is, there's just the spots in the zones that sometimes you've just got to give up. It causes a challenge with your best players or without your best players."