CARSON, Calif. — For Alvin Kamara to see meaningful playing time this season for the New Orleans Saints, the rookie running back is going to have to offer something different than Adrian Peterson and Mark Ingram.
That's exactly what Kamara showed by running for a 50-yard touchdown on New Orleans' first offensive play and leading the Saints to a 13-7 win over the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday night.
Kamara burst off the left side, stepped over a diving defender that grabbed at his ankles and maintained his balance to score the game's only offensive touchdown 1:13 into the first quarter.
It was a play that had worked consistently for Kamara during two days of joint practices between the Saints and Chargers, and the third-round pick from Tennessee knew it would work again.
"Just didn't look back, kept going," Kamara said.
"He's really fast. I saw him and all of a sudden he was like in the open field, so it's pretty cool," Saints quarterback Chase Daniel said.
Kamara finished with 61 yards on five carries and is now averaging 10.7 yards per carry in the preseason. He added a 22-yard catch-and-run coming out of the backfield, and that combination of big-play ability and receiving skills is what could set Kamara apart from Peterson and Ingram, who were both held out as a precaution.
"He has some spatial awareness that a lot of young backs don't have, and you really can't teach that," Daniel said. "He is really taking all the coaching in stride. Really haven't seen him make the same mistake twice."
With just a six-day turnaround to the all-important third preseason game, both the Chargers and Saints gave their starting quarterbacks the day off. The only competitive passes fans at StubHub Center saw Philip Rivers and Drew Brees throw were prerecorded, as the former San Diego teammates staged a throwing contest reminiscent of the old Quarterback Challenge after practice during the joint workouts between the Chargers and Saints earlier in the week.
Daniel was 7 of 12 for 80 yards in place of Brees, finding Michael Thomas for a 28-yard reception to help set up Wil Lutz's 53-yard field goal midway through the first quarter.
Lutz added a 26-yard field goal with 2:11 remaining.
Safety Dexter McCoil intercepted Ryan Nassib's fourth-quarter pass and returned it 99 yards for the Chargers' lone touchdown.
The Chargers played without their starting tackles, as Russell Okung was held out because of a minor ankle injury and Joe Barksdale stood on the sideline with his right foot in a walking boot. The drop-off to backups Tyreek Burwell on the left side and Chris Hairston on the right was evident, as the Chargers only gained 31 yards on 15 plays in the first quarter.
When the Chargers finally reached midfield on their third possession, Burwell and left guard Kenny Wiggins gave up sacks on consecutive plays to end the drive.
Linebacker Manti Te'o, who played his first four seasons with the Chargers, had one of four first-half sacks for the Saints.
"I know that was a preseason game, but it couldn't have got any uglier, in my opinion," Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. "Even though we won the time of possession, sacks is what killed us. It's not just the offensive line. It's running backs, it's tight ends, it's the whole group. But we have to do a better job of coaching these guys and getting them ready to play."
Chargers running back Melvin Gordon had eight yards rushing on five carries and had a catch for seven yards in the first quarter. Kellen Clemens was 10 of 17 for 99 yards and added 26 yards rushing on three carries.
The Chargers managed to avoid the shutout thanks to the long-striding McCoil, but haven't scored on offence on their last 18 possessions dating back to the end of the first half against the Seattle Seahawks last week.
"Today we might have looked at it as a preseason game instead of another opportunity to get better," Gordon said. "I don't feel like we got better today. It's just a lack of communication. We'll fix it up and be better."
During his time at Iowa, Chargers cornerback Desmond King always found ways to fill the stat sheet. The fifth-round pick has brought that trait to the NFL, as he had a sack, a tackle for loss and a pass defence against the Saints after intercepting a pass against the Seahawks.
"Did you see 36 (King)?," linebacker Korey Toomer said. "He was making plays all over in there."
King admitted he was overwhelmed during rookie minicamp, but has settled in since them.
"Once I started getting used to the system, just getting comfortable and not overthinking things and kind of getting overwhelmed with the situations, just getting comfortable and believing in the system is what really helped me," King said.
Saints: Rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore, a first-round pick from Ohio State, made his preseason debut after missing most of training camp because of a sprained knee.
Chargers: Burwell left the game after the third drive with a right hand injury and did not return. Burwell emerged from the locker room in the first half in a cast that covered his whole hand. Hairston slid over to left tackle, with rookie Sam Tevi handling duties at right tackle.