Alvin Kamara somehow finds another gear to start Year 2

METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton insisted this offseason that he didn't want to simply double Alvin Kamara's workload and overload the New Orleans Saints running back during Mark Ingram's four-game suspension.

But then two things happened in Sunday's 48-40 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Saints wound up having to play catch-up in a game that turned into a track meet. And, well, Kamara was so dynamic every time he touched the ball that it was impossible not to keep feeding him.

Kamara wound up with eight carries for 29 yards, nine catches for 112 yards, three touchdowns and a two-point conversion while playing a career-high 52 snaps.

It's also worth noting that all four of Kamara's scores came inside the 10-yard line (a 5-yard run, a 1-yard run, a 7-yard reception and the two-point run). So it's not as if he was replaced by a "short-yardage" back to ease the pounding.

"It felt good," Kamara said Thursday with a wide grin. "I still feel good."

Let's be honest. As dazzling as Kamara was during his NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign last season, it seemed as if it would be nearly impossible for him to sustain his production level in Year 2.

No player in NFL history had ever matched Kamara's 7.7 yards per offensive touch with at least 200 touches in a season. And now defenses know more about him -- and he'll be even more of a focal point in these first four weeks during Ingram's suspension.

So what did Kamara do in Sunday's season opener? He averaged 8.3 yards per offensive touch.

Kamara busted loose for gains of 35, 23 and 18 yards on first-half receptions, showing off his uncanny ability to make defenders miss in the open field.

Last season, Kamara described that ability as going into "Matrix mode." If possible, he said he can read the field and opposing defenses even better now.

"It's Year 2, so it's one of those things where I'm so much smarter than I was last year," Kamara said. "So it's a lot of things that I didn't feel last year as far as coverage or the feel of a play, like the ins and outs of a play that I know now that's just helping me be that much faster."

The 5-foot-10, 215-pounder also said he thinks he is physically faster this season.

"I don't know. I feel a little faster. ... Y'all tell me," said Kamara, who said he made it a priority this offseason to work on things like his "knee drive," his leg strength and the "muscle endurance in my legs."

"Because I felt like that's something I was lacking last year a little bit, even if it didn't look like it," Kamara said. "So I think it's paid off, tremendously."

Kamara certainly isn't going to complain about a bigger workload. He never complained about last year's timeshare with Ingram or campaigned for a bigger role in the offense -- but he always insisted he could handle it when asked this offseason.

Kamara's 17 touches Sunday tied for third highest of his career. He had highs of 19 and 18 last season while averaging 14.5 in the 13 full games he played after Adrian Peterson was traded from New Orleans.

We still don't know how often Kamara will be used as a between-the-tackles runner since the Saints had to practically abandon their run game in Week 1. Payton said he hoped to use backup runners Mike Gillislee (three carries for 9 yards) and Jonathan Williams (one carry for zero yards) even more before the plan changed. It didn't help that Gillislee lost a fumble in the third quarter that was returned for a touchdown.

"The challenge is there's a number of plays you want him in, and yet there can be diminished returns if you're not careful, so we'll be smart that way," Payton said. "We spent a lot of the weekend discussion relative to Gillislee and J-Dub. I would have liked to have seen their numbers been higher, because that would have indicated more of our plan relative to run and pass -- and not just run with those other guys. There's things we'll do with those other players in the game, but that balance is important."

Count Saints quarterback Drew Brees among those who were impressed by the way Kamara was able to pick right up where he left off last season -- and then some.

Brees talked about Kamara's unique traits (the ability to shed tacklers, his burst and explosiveness, the way he "hugs the ground" when he moves). But he also talked about the way Kamara has handled his early success.

"He just keeps taking steps forward, making strides," Brees said. "Obviously he's proven he can be an every-down back. He can do a lot of things. He's extremely versatile. I love his demeanor, I love his approach to the game. He's a guy who comes to practice ready to work. There's no air to him. He just plays with a lot of confidence, plays with a lot of swagger, but I think he also knows when it's time to work, knows when it's time to have fun.

"He knows he's a young player and knows he still has a lot to learn. And I think being in his offense, being with a guy like Sean who knows how to use a weapon like that [helps]. And I like to think that I'm trying to impose some wisdom on him, as well. ...

"I love everything about his approach and the way that he works and the way that he handles it all."