CHARLOTTE – For more than a decade, the Saints high-powered offense centered around Drew Brees.
From 2006-16, the future Hall of Fame quarterback averaged 35 touchdown passes and 4,887 yards. This season, those numbers dropped to 23 and 4,334, Brees' fewest since he's been in New Orleans. Still, the Saints managed to reel off 11 wins and the NFC South title.
It's not hard to figure out how.
"(They have) a whole new different weapon this year in (running back Alvin) Kamara and the tandem of two backs that they have," head coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday ahead of the Panthers' wild card trip to New Orleans. "It most certainly is a challenge. A different kind of challenge than the one we're used to in the past."
And a challenge the Panthers didn't handle well while getting swept by the Saints.
Led by Kamara and Mark Ingram – the first running back tandem to total at least 1,500 yards from scrimmage in the same season – New Orleans ran for 149 and then 148 yards against the Panthers. Those were the two highest totals allowed by Carolina's run defense, a unit that limited opponents to 79.4 rushing yards in its 14 other games.
Kamara, a third-round pick who's compared himself to the Martrix, is the headliner of the two-headed attack. Few expected this kind of production after he spent his college days at Tennessee in relative anonymity. Among his first-year accomplishments, Kamara:
- Had a league-leading 6.2 yards per carry
- Picked up a first down or touchdown on an incredible 34.2 percent of his carries
- Led all running backs in both receptions (81) and receiving yards (826)
- Swept the Offensive Rookie of the Week award from Weeks 9-13 and is nominated for Week 17
- Totaled 1,901 all-purpose yards and 14 touchdowns
- Joined Hall of Famer Gale Sayers as the only rookies with at least five rushing touchdowns, five receiving touchdowns and a kick return for a touchdown
And because he left Week 14's game against Atlanta in the first quarter with a concussion, Kamara did all that in basically 15 games.
"A lot of people look at his size and they think they can go in and just thump him," said cornerback Captain Munnerlyn of the 5-foot-10, 215-pound Kamara. "But he's got tremendous strength. He keeps his legs moving and he's very slippery."
That's a lesson the Panthers learned early in Week 13.
On their opening drive, the Saints sent Kamara on a sweep on 4th-and-goal from the Carolina 2-yard line. For a moment, it looked like the Panthers would hold when linebacker Shaq Thompson met Kamara before the goal line. But after Thompson launched his right shoulder into Kamara, he somehow kept his balance before falling into the end zone.
"You've got to make sure you hit and wrap up on this young man. He's got a great, low center of gravity. He's got great balance," Rivera said. "You can't try to butt tackle him, and by that, I mean like (tackling) a billy goat. You can't try to knock him off his feet. You've got to make sure you hit, you deliver and you wrap."
Which are all things the Panthers knew going into the second meeting. Yet they still had all sorts of trouble stopping Kamara, who totaled 126 yards and scored twice.
"He'll take a hit and he kind of goes limp to a side, but he keeps his balance with the other half of his body. It's crazy cause guys kind of fall off him," Mike Adams said just days before Kamara broke Coleman tackles on at least two occasions.
A month later, Coleman acknowledged that Kamara is "a game-changer."
"He's not a guy that's going to run you over. That's not his style," Coleman said Wednesday. "He knows how to be able to stay on his feet, absorbing the contact. He gets his legs up high, so even if you go low, he absorbs it and he's able to run through your arm tackles."
But the rookie is just part of the problem.
"We've seen how elusive Kamara is, but let's not forget about their other back," Rivera reminded. "They are putting both guys on the field at the same time now, so they can pretty much do anything with those two guys."
Ingram, a former first-round pick, shattered career highs this season with 230 carries for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns. In Week 13, the Panthers did a decent job against the 7th-year pro, limiting him to 37 yards on six receptions and 13 yards on 13 of his carries. The problem was he took a 14th carry 72 yards before scoring on a 3-yard rush two plays later.
The first running back duo to make the Pro Bowl since Jim Otis and Terry Metcalf in 1975, Kamara and Ingram can each catch screen passes out of the backfield and run the ball between the tackles or around the edge. It's a brutal pick your poison for defenses that, oh, by the way, still have to account for Brees. And as his NFL record 72.0 completion percentage showed, he remains more than capable of picking apart secondaries with a lesser workload.
But the Panthers have slowed Brees and Ingram before. In a small sample size, they haven't yet had an answer for Kamara. Finding that could be the difference between one-and-done or moving on.
"This game of football, you don't need to complicate it. It's a lot of 1-on-1 matchups," Coleman said. "It's going to be either he wins, or I win.
"And I don't plan on losing."