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COWBOY UP: Saints RB Alvin Kamara Likely to Have Epic 1-on-1 Battle With Dallas Rookie LB Leighton Vander Esch

The New Orleans Saints offense has been virtually unstoppable this season as the team has risen to the very top of the NFL with a (10-1) record and a current 10-game winning streak, and part of the reason for their success has been the key role filled by 2nd year superstar RB and last year's NFL Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara.

But Kamara — who right now is 2nd in the NFL in total touchdowns with (15) of them (just two behind Rams RB Todd Gurley, who has 17) — could be in for what one might consider an epic 1-on-1 battle at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas (suburban Dallas) this coming week; when he faces young Cowboys superstar and this year's current leading candidate for 2018 Defensive Rookie of the Year: linebacker and former Boise State University star Leighton Vander Esch.

Photo courtesy of The Dallas Morning News

Both players are elite performers at their respective positions — which makes it a "must-see" match-up to watch this Thursday Night.

Whether or not Vander Esch will be able to "Cowboy Up" however, and somehow manage to limit Kamara from doing any major damage against a much-improved Dallas defensive unit, remains to be seen.

Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is almost certain to have his best athlete on defense serve as a "shadow" to cover Kamara where ever he goes, and that athlete is none other than Vander Esch himself. 

The Cowboys' top draft pick (#19 overall) in this past year’s 2018 NFL Draft, Vander Esch's ability as a reliably-sure tackler versus Kamara's "shiftiness" and Gayle Sayers-like elusiveness, will be the literal definition of an "instant classic".

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

One thing that Vander Esch has done well at since emerging as a young superstar in only his very first NFL season,  is limiting the YAC (yards after the catch) by opposing running backs, but the 22-year old Riggins, Idaho native (population 419) hasn't faced ANYBODY this season so far quite like Kamara — and the manner in which the Saints utilize him.

Vander Esch has made several highlight-reel plays recently, including one against the Falcons a few weeks back in which he essentially wiped out both a blocker and the ball-carrier on the same play.

He's clearly demonstrated to the Dallas coaching staff that he has a "nose for the football", and appears to have developed a knack for making key plays in the most crucial of moments. Vander Esch leads the team in tackles and is now the sixth Cowboys’ rookie to record at least 100 tackles in a season.

Vander Esch’s first start as a professional however didn't actually come until Week #4 against the Detroit Lions; when he was inserted into the Cowboys line-up when Dallas lost starting linebacker Sean Lee to a recurring hamstring injury-issue that's kept him out of action ever since.

But as fate would have it (and very fortunately from Dallas' perspective): they discovered that Vander Esch perhaps was better than even they thought that he was, and now they not only have the leading candidate for the 2018 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award, but the "heir apparent" to Lee as the team's new defensive leader.

After tallying 6 tackles in his debut against Detroit, the following week in the Cowboys' loss to the Houston Texans, Vander Esch had what was his "break out" performance; when he led the team with a whopping 14 tackles; and cementing his place in the starting line-up,

In 11 games this season, Vander Esch has 93 total tackles, two interceptions, 6 PBU's (pass break-ups) and two TFL's (tackles for a loss of yards). He's also the NFL’s leader in solo tackles with 72; and as noted by SB Nation Cowboys Game Day reporter Bobby Belt on Twitter, Vander Esch has only played 73.6% of Dallas’ snaps, which undoubtedly makes that total all the more impressive.

But the numbers honestly don't reflect just how well Vander Esch has played this season, which is at a level uncommon for a rookie (unless of course your name is Alvin Kamara or Marshon Lattimore). One thing that NFL scouts weren't sure about initially was how Vander Esch would adapt to playing at the pro level. but he's been nothing short of phenomenal for Dallas since taking over the reins from the veteran Lee.

But in these past several weeks, Vander Esch has demonstrated the innate capability to recognize and correctly diagnose plays; along with a knack for being able to suddenly (and very quickly) change directions and tackle receivers or ball-carriers in open space.

He also is a much more stronger athlete as initially believed, as evidenced by him stopping offensive players from both the Falcons and Redskins in successive weeks completely dead in their tracks at full speed.

Long story short: Vander Esch can do a lot of things well at the linebacker position both as a middle / inside player against the run and in pass coverage, and also coming off the outside edge as a pass rusher as well.

Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Nevertheless, the opposite in reverse is true for Vander Esch against Kamara; who isn't quite like any other RB or offensive-skill player that the Cowboys rookie LB has had to face this season.

In 11 games, Kamara has run the ball 150 times for 706 yards, a 4.7 yards per carry average; along with 11 rushing touchdowns. But where Kamara will challenge Vander Esch the most is with his dynamic and at-times breath-taking athleticism as a receiver out of the backfield, which could prove to be a VERY difficult task for the young Cowboys defender.

Kamara has caught 57 passes for 519 yards and 4 receiving TD's in the Saints' 11 games played up to this point; either as a receiver out of the backfield or as a wide receiver lined up either on the line of scrimmage or the outside boundary, where he essentially is an additional target (but faster than pretty much everyone else out on the field) among the handful of receiving targets that Drew Brees has to throw to on each play.

In the truest sense of the often-used football expression "satellite back" (or a "scat back" as some refer to it as), Kamara is exactly that since he is moved all around the various formations within Sean Payton's diverse offensive scheme.

At any given point, Kamara can be lined up in the backfield, in the slot position, or 'out wide' on the outer boundary, and make no mistake about it: Kamara is extremely DANGEROUS (but yet also very adept at mastering all three roles). Payton isn't afraid to utilize Kamara in any sort of situation or down and distance; and tries to get him involved in a rather wide variety of play-calls.

Nothing is off-limits; from perimeter runs to inside runs, to reverses and "end arounds"; or even a "jet sweep" out on the perimeter, Kamara is used in all of these facets within the Saints offensive scheme, and any time he has the ball in his hands is considered an ideal scenario for ultimate success. But Kamara is EXTREMELY undervalued (if you can actually believe that someone with his talent would possibly be) as a receiver in the "classical" sense, particularly as a route-runner.

Michael DeMocker, | The Times-Picayune

Kamara is a "shifty" route runner (much like that great 1960's RB and NFL Hall of Fame legend Gayle Sayers mentioned up above) who has a unique ability to create his own separation. He's also been blessed with "break-away" sprinter's speed as a runner in the open field, which comes in handy for making a young rookie defender such as Vander Esch is, miss a potential tackle before "taking it all the way to the house".

And let's not forget: Payton will often use Kamara as a "decoy" to open up other options on any given play. Opposing defenses often will react in response by swarming to the football in an effort to stop him; only to realize suddenly that it's actually opened or 'freed up' another receiver on the other side of the field.

Bottom line: Kamara by far and away is one of THE toughest players to cover in the NFL, and he’ll provide a big test for the young rookie Vander Esch this coming Thursday Night.

However, if Vander Esch fails to "Cowboy Up" against Kamara, it could be a long night for both the rookie and for Dallas — as the Saints look to leave Texas and the 'Big D' behind with their 11th win in a row in their back pockets....



Big Easy Magazine contributing writer and Saints News Network columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and writer previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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