NEW ORLEANS SAINTS UPDATE 

lPAYTON REALIZES THERE IS A TIME FOR MORE KAMARA

According to ESPN.com's Mike Triplett, head coach Sean Payton didn't specifically plan for running back Alvin Kamara to touch the ball on 11 of the New Orleans Saints' first 19 plays in last Sunday's 34-17 win at Tampa Bay (including a touchdown that was nullified by a penalty).

But it wasn't an accident either.

Payton knew his offense needed a jolt after a dreadful loss to the Atlanta Falcons a week earlier. And what better player to provide it than the dynamic Kamara, who needed a bit of a jolt himself after ankle and knee injuries stalled the middle of his season?

"I don't know if we went in with the opening set of plays saying, 'All right, we need to get X number of touches here.' It was really a byproduct of where we were situationally [with down and distance]," Payton said. "[But] different than a receiver sometimes, it's a little bit easier to know that you're gonna get a running back X number of plays."

Kamara's 14 offensive touches in the first half Sunday were the most of his career, according to ESPN Stats & Information. And that doesn't include two other big plays nullified by penalties.

He finished with 13 carries for 75 yards and 10 catches for 47 yards. And he also returned three punts for 32 yards while filling in for the injured Deonte Harris.

That kind of workload is not necessarily a sign of things to come for Kamara.

Payton has stressed he likes the idea of keeping Kamara on a "pitch count" to keep him fresh for the long haul -- a philosophy that shouldn't change much after Kamara was out because of knee and ankle injuries from Weeks 7-8. And once again, Payton commended fellow running back Latavius Murray on Monday and said both backs "are gonna be very involved in what we do."

But the Saints do understand the value of feeding Kamara when they need him.

Often that comes at the end of games when the Saints are in catch-up mode. In this case, it came at the beginning of a game when New Orleans was in makeup mode from the week before.

"Certainly, absolutely, there's a lot of versatility there [with Kamara as a runner and receiver]," Payton said when asked if Kamara is a great option to get an offense going.

All that said, Triplett contends the Saints still need to find more ways to get Kamara into the end zone.

He stunningly has two touchdowns this season after scoring 14 as a rookie in 2017 and 18 last year. And the entire offense, from Payton to Kamara to Drew Brees and Michael Thomas, all talked about how they still felt like they had left "too much meat on the bone" after Sunday's win at Tampa Bay.

The holding penalty against Saints tight end Jared Cook that nullified Kamara's potential 4-yard touchdown run in the first quarter was a lingering issue.

The Saints have scored on 22 percent of their first-quarter trips inside the red zone this year. And they rank second in the NFL with 15 offensive penalties in the first quarter.

"Self-inflicted wounds, unforced errors. We gotta clean that up," Brees said. "If we want to be as good as I think we can be, we've gotta be better in that area. ..."

A matchup with the Panthers could help Kamara. It should also benefit Murray.

As ESPN.com's Tristan Cockcroft noted this week, one of the few second-string running backs whose role is expansive enough to warrant fantasy consideration during the bye weeks, Murray has averaged 9.8 touches while playing 36 percent of the Saints' offensive snaps in their past four games in which both he and Kamara have been active.

Two of those were games against the Buccaneers, the toughest defense against the position this season, which helps explain Murray's 25.4 PPR fantasy points during that time.

This matchup, however, is the easiest matchup for an opposing running back, the kind that with double-digit touches, Murray shouldn't have much trouble delivering RB2 numbers.

Per Cockcroft, the Panthers have surrendered a whopping, league-leading 193.9 points on rushing plays this season, served up 90.0 PPR fantasy points combined to Tevin Coleman, Derrick Henry and Aaron Jones in Weeks 8-10, and allowed 19.8 to the Falcons' fill-in combination of Brian Hill, Kenjon Barner, Qadree Ollison and Keith Smith in Week 11. ...

Beyond the running backs, Brees threw for 228 yards and three touchdowns in Tampa Bay on Sunday.

As ESPN's Mike Clay notes, Brees has now played four complete games this season and, powered by 1,258 passing yards and eight touchdowns, sits fifth among quarterbacks in fantasy points during those weeks. Brees has been more conservative (his 6.1 average depth of target is down from 7.2 in 2018), which has led to a lower yard per attempt (8.2 to 7.6), but he has completed a career-high and league-best 75 percent of his passes.

Especially with the Saints calling pass more often than in recent seasons, Clay believes Brees remains in the weekly QB1 discussion.

And of course, Michael Thomas is really good.

This week, he's a strong bet to draw shadow coverage from the Panthers' James Bradberry. Per Clay, Carolina's top corner shadowed Thomas in both the Week 15 and Week 17 meetings between these teams last season and actually had some success.

Thomas was "held" to a 7-49-0 receiving line on nine targets in Week 15 and a 5-29-0 line on seven targets in Week 17. Thomas posted a 6-42-0 line on nine targets on 41 (of 58) routes against Bradberry.

So that's a concern. But a mild concern given Thomas' overall level of play.

Beyond that, ESPN's Al Zeidenfeld reminded readers this week that the Panthers have the worst red-zone defense in the league, allowing touchdowns at a 65.7 percent rate when opponents get close. Very simply, Thomas gets targets all over the field -- as well as in the red zone, with a 30.5 percent target share for New Orleans when they get inside the 20. ...

One last note here. ... The Saints shuffled the bottom of their depth chart on Friday in a series of roster moves. Third-year wide receiver Austin Carr was sent to the injured reserve list after missing practice with an ankle injury; in his place, the Saints called up practice squad tight end Jason Vander Laan.

With starting fullback Zach Line sidelined by a knee injury and backup tight end Josh Hill returning from a mild concussion, opportunities are there for Vander Laan to make an impression right away. Carr's loss on offense is minimal; he's proven to be a capable blocker out of the slot, but struggles to get open or catch the ball when it's thrown to him.

The Saints are working with second-year wideout Keith Kirkwood in his return from injured reserve in the next few weeks. Hopefully he'll be able to create a spark where Carr couldn't once he's back.

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