Saints working to diversify Brees’ passing options
METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Saints coach Sean Payton preaches the importance of self-scouting to avoid predictable patterns.
That could be one reason why he doesn’t expect quarterback Drew Brees to keep throwing to receiver Michael Thomas quite as often as he has through the season’s first two weeks, when Thomas has racked up more receptions than the rest of New Orleans’ receivers and tight ends combined.
“Part of it is just, here we are, two weeks in,” began Payton, whose team visits Atlanta on Sunday.
“I think that you’re going to see those numbers change some. And I think historically, offensively with Drew, a lot of different guys have been involved in the passing game — and I think that will be the same case this year.”
Thomas has 28 catches, the most of any NFL receiver in the first two weeks of a season, surpassing Andre Rison’s 26 in 1994 with the Falcons.
Running back Alvin Kamara is second in catches with 15, but many of his receptions are short ones out of the backfield that essentially substitute for running plays.
Among more conventional receiving targets, receiver Ted Ginn Jr. has nine catches, tight end Ben Watson has seven, and no one else has more than two.
When asked about his heavy reliance on Thomas in the passing game, Brees downplayed it as more of a short-term phenomenon than a developing trend.
“For one reason or another, I know he’s caught a lot of balls the last two weeks. He’s gotten open. He’s done a great job with that. His number’s been called,” Brees said.
“It’s probably the combination of a lot of things, but I feel like we’ve got other guys that can do it, too. It’s just a matter of what the defense is going to give us.
“I’m going to throw it to the open guy — move the chains, score points.”
Falcons coach Dan Quinn also struggled to envision the rate of Thomas’ targets remaining as high as it has been through two games.
“Let’s face it. They’re equipped to attack in a lot of different ways,” Quinn asserted this week. “Michael right now is on his game, but by no stretch have we said ‘OK, it’s just these players.’ ... We know they’ve got a big stable of guys that can make plays in a lot of ways, but we have been very impressed by Michael and his start.”
New Orleans made a pair of offseason moves aimed at providing Brees more options, signing Bears 2016 receiving leader Cameron Meredith as a restricted free agent and drafting former Central Florida receiver Tre’Quan Smith in the third round last spring.
But judging those moves could take time.
Smith has been in the game plan, but rookies sometimes take time to develop chemistry with veteran QBs. He had one catch for 18 yards in a victory over Cleveland and no catches in a Week 1 loss to Tampa Bay.
“He has not received a ton of opportunities, but I think as the season progresses his opportunities will come,” Brees said. “He can be a big part of what we do down the road.”
Smith said his daily goal is to win Brees’ trust and he does not sound disillusioned by the relatively slow start to his career.
“You’ve got to be a team player,” Smith said. “If they’re not going to cover (Thomas), keep going to him.
“If Mike has all the yards and all the touchdowns, but we’re winning, that’s totally fine,” Smith said. “I’m sure teams are going to be zeroing in on Mike, but that’s when other receivers have got to step up. We’ve got to be ready.”
Meredith, meanwhile, is trying to come back from torn knee ligaments that wiped out his 2017 season. He said trainers and doctors urged caution during training camp, thereby limiting his opportunities to practice with the first-team offense.
He was scratched from the lineup in Weeks 1 and 2, but with Ginn limited in practice with knee soreness this week, Meredith has been getting work with the first-team offense and appears primed to make his Saints debut in Atlanta.
“It’s hard. It’s an everyday battle. This process is new to me, so whatever the trainers and the doctors say is best, we had to go with that,” Meredith said.
“But at the same time, I’ve been getting better day by day, getting my rhythm back. And those are all important things — not just the health part, but getting in rhythm with the offense.
“I feel good and I’m excited to go out there and make some plays this weekend.”