Saints film room: How the Saints used Michael Thomas as a weapon against the Rams

November 6, 2018

Sean Payton is a ruthless tactician.

When he sees an advantage, he exploits it. Mercilessly. Repeatedly. Expertly.

The Saints coach anticipated one of those matchups during Sunday’s win over the Rams. He expected Los Angeles would place former All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters on wide receiver Michael Thomas in one-on-one coverage, creating a matchup the Saints felt they could use to move the ball throughout the afternoon.

New Orleans got the matchup it wanted. Then Thomas went to work, catching 12 passes for 211 yards with a touchdown. It was, by far, the most dominant performance of the season for the third-year wide receiver who is steadily making his case as one of the five best wide receivers in the NFL.

Thomas and Peters matched up on 22 of 36 passing snaps, with Peters following him both to the inside and outside of the formation (including seven snaps in the slot). The wide receiver was targeted nine times while the two were paired up, making seven catches for 146 yards with a touchdown.

The long was a 72-yard score when he caught Peters in single coverage and blew by him up the field. Thomas might have clocked in with 4.57 speed at the scouting combine, but he looked much faster on that play as he ran away from everyone.

That was the big play that allowed Thomas to run his yardage total up. The rest of the game saw him chip away at the coverage, methodically moving the chains and doing all the things that have helped the wide receiver establish himself as one of the more frustrating matchups for opposing cornerbacks.

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Start with his signature play. Two of Thomas’ wins against Peters came on slants. It’s debatable if one of the plays should fall on Peters since Los Angeles was playing quarters coverage and Thomas caught the pass between zones. But he showed off his ability after the catch by running by safety John Jonson before being tackled to gain 19 yards. On another, for a gain of eight, Thomas simply use his body to create an opening for Brees to deliver the ball with Peters right on his back.

Given all the other things he did Sunday, neither of those plays rate as highlights, but they are a piece of the overall puzzle. The Saints receiver has been unstoppable on slants throughout his career, but he has taken it to a new level this season, catching 11 of his 12 targets on the route this season. He caught 31 of 38 his first two seasons for 331 yards.

But where Thomas really seemed to do a lot of his damage was on in-breaking routes over the middle. He beat Peters on the very first passing play out of a bunch right formation, on an in route for a gain of 12. It was Thomas’ first catch of the season out of a bunch right look, and very possibly the first one of his career. The Saints did a great job of breaking a tendency on the play, but the Rams weren’t unprepared as Thomas got double covered on the play.

Thomas got Peters again on a crossing route for a gain of 13, and then beat a zone coverage for a gain of 18. He had another win against quarters coverage for another 13.

Thomas also could have scored another touchdown earlier in the game if Brees had been forced to hold the ball for an extra tick of the clock. With two minutes left in the second quarter from the 25-yard line, the quarterback threw an incomplete pass to tight end Josh Hill, who had two steps on his man in coverage. On the other side of the field, Thomas beat Peters so severely that the cornerback fell to the ground as Brees was releasing the pass to Hill.

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The game served as a reminder of how good Thomas has been playing. It also brought to attention how little else the Saints have gotten from their other weapons on offense. Tre’Quan Smith showed up a few times on film, but New Orleans needs to get better contributions out of the rest of the depth chart.

It might not happen at any point this year, and Sunday was a good reminder of how difficult it is to do, but if someone manages to limit Thomas’ output with one-on-one coverage, is there another receiver who can help the offense move the ball? Cam Meredith appeared to be on the edge of putting it together with a good performance against the Washington Redskins, but he hasn’t managed so much as a target the last three games.

The offense has been prolific this season. So, this might be an overblown concern, but the second wide receiver on the team has 12 catches through eight games. There needs to be more diversity and more significant contributions at that position.

Containing Donald: The Saints were very clearly focused on making sure Aaron Donald did not become a problem on Sunday.

The Rams defensive tackle moved all about the line, lining up on both sides of the line, but he was double teamed on more than half of the snaps by either Larry Warford and Max Unger or Unger and Andrus Peat.

The Rams were able to do some things to create one-on-one looks for Donald by either blitzing or running stunts, and he had some success, logging at least six pressures. But it felt like a win for the offensive line overall considering Donald’s ability to wreck a game.

A lot of his pressures were either manufactured by scheme or circumstance. Donald had one hit on Brees on a play-action fake where he was unblocked. Another came when Andrus Peat lost contain of his man, and Donald was able to slip off a double team and use his teammate as a pick of sorts. Three others came against a single blocker.

The plan required a high level of communication and functioning, but the Saints mostly pulled it off and did a good enough job not to let it become a significant disruption.

Unicorn: The Saints ran a play they’ve only used four other times since 2006 late in the first quarter to get Josh Hill open for a gain of six yards.

The play works like this: Brees lines up under center with split back behind him. He drops back and fakes a screen pass to one running back, then turns and fakes to the other back before tucking the ball. Hill, the inline tight end, guard Larry Warford and offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk sell it as if they’re blocking for a screen on the right side of the formation until Hill slips up the seam on a delayed route.

New Orleans dusted the play off last year against Chicago, and Hill gained 19 yards. The Saints previously used the play to get Mark Campbell open for 14 yards against the Cowboys in 2006, and to Dave Thomas for a gain of 25 against the Patriots in 2009.

The other time the Saints used the play, also against the Cowboys, it fell incomplete.

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