Second year wide receiver Michael Thomas is the focal point of the New Orleans Saints’ passing arsenal, and he will get his touches versus the Bills’ defense on Sunday. His early success in the league doesn’t surprise me. Combining his skills with quarterback Drew Brees and play designs from head coach Sean Payton, and you can see why his @Cantguardmike Twitter handle rings true. Payton has done a tremendous job of maximizing Thomas’s talents.
Payton has drawn up plays to get Thomas the ball from the slot position, like this play against the Carolina Panthers. With the ball on the right hash the Saints send out a 3×1 formation, then motion RB Alvin Kamara out wide. The motion bumps the corner out and shows Drew Brees that it’s most likely zone coverage. Post-snap, linebacker Thomas Davis, who was showing an A-gap blitz, drops and becomes the hook-to-curl defender in a Tampa 2 coverage. Brees peeks at the bender route going down the middle of the field, but it’s taken away by LB Luke Kuechly, so he turns and rifles the pass to Thomas. He catches it with his hands, and it allows him to gain some yardage after the catch.
The 6’3″ 212 pound target is a player who excels in the short to intermediate areas due to superb route running skills. He isn’t known for his speed, but he can gain YAC with short, sudden bursts in tight areas, and it’s helped him cause 24 missed tackles in a season and a half. So Payton designs plays that maximize those skills, like this ‘Tunnel’ screen on 3rd-and-8. Payton sends out a 2×2 formation with WR Ted Ginn in the backfield. He uses Ginn as the ‘eye candy’ as he motions him into the boundary. The motion immediately grabs the attention of the linebackers, and they are forced to adjust their spacing. This lightens the box so that the Saints can run a Tunnel screen to the field to Thomas. Beautiful play design.
Finally, here’s a play that I can almost guarantee the Bills will see this Sunday. It’s an early down chunk play that I am sure the Saints will attempt to start a drive and to take some of the wind out of the fans’ sails. The concept is called a ‘Yankee’ concept. It’s usually a two man route combination, often run off of play action, and it attacks single high coverages such as Cover 1 or Cover 3. To the bottom of the screen you will have some form of a post route — sometimes a post, skinny post, or even a Dino post. Then, you will have some form of over route or dig route, which is run by Thomas on this play.
This route combination attempts to high/low the deep safety. If the deep safety jumps the dig by Thomas, then the Saints have a big play deep. If he stays over the top, then Thomas has the leverage to separate on the crossing route. It’s a simple combination, and one that Brees has mastered. This play is run at least once a game, and I saw it completed to Thomas in weeks 4, 7, and 9. Take a look:
Playing with Brees has definitely elevated Thomas’s game, and so far this season he has compiled 50 catches for 545 yards and two touchdowns. According to Pro Football Focus, he is ranked 9th overall in yards per route run, which takes into account the number of snaps a player went into a pattern. It’s a better indicator of production than Yards per Reception or even Yards per Target.
Limiting Thomas’s catches on Sunday will be difficult because of HC Payton’s ability to design plays. The linebackers and defensive backs will need to be on high alert when they see a two WR formation on early downs. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s philosophy is to give up the underneath stuff and not to allow the explosive plays, much like that post route on the Yankee concept. So I believe that Thomas will have a reception or two running the dig underneath.
On 3rd down they should always know where Thomas is. Brees has targeted him 21 times on third down, and that is 11 more targets than the next receiver, Ted Ginn.
Preparation and practice this week will have to be sharp because the Saints are going to throw an array of weapons and plays at Buffalo’s defense, starting with Michael Thomas. Can they rise to the occasion?