METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Alvin Kamara's next chance to build on his prolific, workhorse of a season comes against a Falcons defense that hopes it has an answer to the Saints' dynamic running back.
Atlanta’s Deion “Debo” Jones — who happens to be a New Orleans native and former LSU standout — has been tough on the Saints in the past and is among the few linebackers who have the combination of strength and quickness to give Kamara a long day.
Or a short one, as in 2017, when Jones ended Kamara's game five minutes into the first quarter with a hard, high tackle that dropped the running back for a 4-yard loss on a screen pass. The Falcons won that game, 20-17, and Jones clinched the victory with a late interception of Drew Brees in the end zone.
“Debo is always called upon big in these games. Deion Jones steps up big for us, taking on a big assignment," Atlanta coach Raheem Morris said. “Covering Kamara is always going to be a big challenge for him. It’s also going to be a big challenge for Kamara. ... It’s always a five-star matchup. Get your popcorn and get ready.”
Kamara, now in his fourth year as a pro, ranks second in the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 1,134, and touchdowns with 11 through nine games — an average of 126 yards and more than one TD per game.
The Kamara-Jones matchup has occurred four times since Kamara entered the league in 2017 when he was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Jones missed both 2018 games against New Orleans because of injury.
Kamara has yet to reach 100 yards from scrimmage — or score a touchdown — against Atlanta when Jones has played.
“There’s a handful of linebackers that’ll draw that (one-on-one) matchup, and he’s one of them,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of Jones. "Just watching the games last year, I mean, five, six, seven different times, there’s that one on one. ... I think that that’s a credit to both players. Obviously, (Jones) can move and he’s athletic, and so it is a matchup, especially on third down.”
Kamara was scheduled to speak with reporters Wednesday, but that was postponed after he did not participate fully in practice. He was listed on the Saints' injury report as limited by a foot injury. Jones also did not meet with reporters.
Because of Brees' rib injury last weekend, former Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston is expected to start for New Orleans and share snaps with change-of-pace option QB Taysom Hill.
Jones, who has intercepted Brees three times, also intercepted Winston and returned it for a touchdown against the Bucs at the end of last season.
For much of the past three seasons, the Saints' approach on offense has emphasized limiting turnovers, generally opting against risky downfield throws and checking down to running backs. That has worked in large part because of Kamara's exceptional skill as a receiver out of the backfield, as well as his ability to set up blocks on screens and slip tackles in general.
Fellow running back Latavius Murray, more of a bruising, straight-ahead runner, also has received opportunities in the short passing game since joining the Saints in 2019. He suspects the Saints' success in the running game and short passing game will hinge on their ability to beat Jones.
“He's a heck of an athlete, high-motor guy, runs the field well,” Murray said. “It'll be a challenge obviously to try and eliminate him from making those big plays that he's consistently made.”
But Murray sees Kamara as the type of running back who could win that matchup, noting that his star teammate has a “rare intelligence.”
“When you ask a running back to play multiple positions, there's a risk of things going wrong. There's a risk of the running back not knowing what to do. But with Alvin, that's not the case,” Murray explained. “Not only does he know what to do, where to line up when you have him out of the backfield, but then he also has the ability to catch the ball, and that just makes him that much more dangerous.”
NOTES: Brees attended Wednesday's practice in his regular, red No. 9 jersey, but did not wear a helmet and stood off to the side while players went through drills. He was among five Saints who did not practice, along with DE Cameron Jordan (back), RB Dwayne Washington (back), WR Tre'Quan Smith (concussion) and TE Josh Hill (concussion).