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Thunder and Lightning: The Offensive Balance of the 2017 Saints

By: Andy Cooper

STATS X-Info data helps show the interchanging roles of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, as well as how the New Orleans Saints returned to the playoffs by moving away from their dependence on Drew Brees’ arm.

They’ve been called thunder and lightning, a battering ram and a jitterbug, the perfect balance between physicality and pace. The thing is, calling Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara all of those things doesn’t give either of the dynamic New Orleans running backs near enough credit. In fact, it’s a bit confusing.

You can point to Ingram’s seven broken tackles this season, which ranks fifth in the league, and say he should be considered “thunder.” But then again, less than 10 percent of Ingram’s rushes have gone up the middle, and the 508 yards he’s gained after his 58 catches this season would point toward him having a little lightning in him.

But the “lightning” label has been designated for Kamara this season, and for good reason. The 3.8 yards before contact he averages on his runs suggests he makes a lot of guys miss. However, it’s hard to ignore his 2.3 yards after contact, which ranks fifth among backs with at least 100 carries. That’s a thunderous stat. So are the six broken tackles Kamara has forced this year.

Ingram and Kamara present a problem in that regard, although if which nickname to give the duo is the biggest problem the Saints have in the backfield, Sean Payton and Drew Brees will likely take it.

No matter what they are called, “historic” needs to be attached. Ingram and Kamara’s combined 3,094 yards from scrimmage this season (728 rushing/826 receiving from Kamara, 1,124 rushing/416 receiving from Ingram) are the second-highest total all-time for a running back duo, trailing only Walter Payton and Roland Harper of the 1978 Chicago Bears, who totaled 3,207. The 2017 New Orleans pair is the first ever to both gain at least 1,500 yards from scrimmage, and the first pair to both make the Pro Bowl since 1975. And Kamara did all of that despite touching the ball a total of 20 times in the first three weeks of the season while Adrian Peterson was still in town.

Ingram has had his best year in the NFL with career highs in carries, rushing yards, catches and receiving yards, and still isn’t the most valuable player in the Saints backfield.

Kamara totaled eight rushing touchdowns, five receiving touchdowns, and even returned a kickoff for a touchdown in Week 17. He also had the highest explosive play rate among running backs in the NFL (catches of 25-plus yards and runs of 15+) at 9.9 percent.

Numbers in parentheses denote NFL rank among running backs. (Graphics by Stephan van Niekerk)

And that barely scratches the surface on the value he has provided the Saints. Kamara, a leading candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year, was taken No. 67 overall in last year’s NFL Draft, 59 spots behind Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey, who was considered the next-generation, do-it-all running back. While McCaffrey has been very good with over 1,000 scrimmage yards and 80 catches, Kamara has been better. The Tennessee product trumps McCaffrey in every statistical category, but it goes deeper than that. Because New Orleans didn’t draft Kamara until the third round, it opened the door to drafting Marshon Lattimore and Ryan Ramczyk in the first round. Pro Bowler Lattimore is in the driver’s seat for Defensive Rookie of the Year with five interceptions and 18 passes defended. Ramczyk has played every snap on the offensive line this season and is the No. 12-rated right tackle in the NFL for pass protection, according to STATS X-Info.

The most impressive thing about Kamara and Ingram, though, is how balanced they have made the New Orleans offense after the Saints had to rely almost solely on Brees’ arm over recent years. This is of course counterintuitive to passing trends in today’s NFL, which we noted earlier this week with an assessment of Jacksonville’s emphasis on building an elite pass defense.

Both running backs run the ball extremely well. Kamara’s 6.1-yard average and Ingram’s 4.9-yard average ranked first and fourth in the NFL this season. Kamara also ranked second in quality-rush percentage[1] among running backs with at least 120 carries, trailing only Ezekiel Elliott.

The result: 2017 is the first time in 10 years Brees hasn’t thrown 30 touchdown passes, but for good reason. Brees has handed the ball off more times this season than he has since 2009, which has led to a top-five rushing attack and the league lead in touchdown runs — both firsts for Brees in his career.

And that’s just what the two provided in the run game. Although Brees didn’t put up his usual gaudy numbers in the passing game (he’s led the league in attempts four times since he moved to New Orleans, and has been top-three nine times, but is ninth in 2017), a New Orleans offense is always going to have success throwing the ball. Adding Kamara in the draft didn’t take away from that. His 6.1 yards per carry were just one element he added to the Saints — his real impact came catching the ball.

Historically, the Saints have been good when Brees has running backs that are a threat catching the ball. In 2013 — the Saints’ last winning season before this one — Brees threw over 38 percent of his completed passes to running backs. In 2011, when the team won 13 games, that number was almost 34 percent. Back in 2006, when Brees was named First Team All-Pro, he completed 43 percent of his passes to the likes of Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister. This year, that number is right at 37 percent. Not surprisingly, Brees led the NFL in screen attempts (87), completions (76) and yards (594).

To put Kamara’s receiving skills into perspective, he had 12 more receptions than Dez Bryant, 37 more receiving yards than Alshon Jeffery, and as many touchdown receptions as Golden Tate. According to X-Info data, Kamara recorded a 20-plus yard reception lined up in seven different positions, more than the likes of Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Julio Jones or McCaffrey.

That versatility from Kamara, coupled with the ever-steady production of Ingram, has given the Saints a high-flying — and extremely balanced — offense that has kept defensive coordinators awake at night all season. If defenses choose to stack the box and stop the run, prepare for both Ingram and Kamara to show flashes of lightning in the passing game. Drop back in coverage, and you’ll get a steady boom of thunder.

It comes as no surprise that thunderstorms are in the forecast for Sunday in New Orleans, when Carolina comes to town for the first round of the NFC playoffs. And although the game will be played in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, don’t expect that to stop a little thunder and lightning from making its way into the stadium. The biggest challenge for the Panthers will be to decide where it’s coming from — Ingram or Kamara.


[1] Quality rush:
1) on first down: a rush play achieves greater than or equal to 40 percent of the yardage necessary for a first down.
2) on second down: a rush play that achieves greater than or equal to 50 percent of the yardage necessary for a first down.
3) on third and fourth downs: a rush play that results in a first down.