Over the course of the first two games of the season, the Saints team looked even worse than they had in prior years. It wasn’t just that the defense was bad; we’ve become accustomed to seeing that. The problem was that the offense wasn’t performing at the standard they’ve previously set, and without the offense keeping the team in games, blowout losses ensued. Fortunately for the organization and the fans, the offense figured things out against one of the better defenses in the NFL. This happened for a variety of reasons, but perhaps the biggest reason was the performance of one wide receiver in particular.
Here he is: the grown man himself. The Saints first offensive series featured 5 passes to #13, all of which were completed and one of which went for a touchdown. Let’s take a look at each of them.
It’s a 5-yard out vs. off coverage on a cornerback. The play is designed to keep the offense ahead of the down and distance and get everyone into a rhythm. Doesn’t seem like much, but it’s a good start to a game. 2nd and 4 is a tough position for a defense.
4 plays later and Drew Brees is again throwing his way on a deep dig route behind the linebacker and in front of the cornerback for a nice 16-yard gain. Again, nothing too crazy. Just two smart, talented players connecting for a first down.
Here’s where things get dicey for the Panthers. Alvin Kamara goes in motion out wide, with Michael Thomas lined up inside at the slot. As Kamara goes in motion, the cornerback kicks out with him, indicating to Brees that it’s a type of zone coverage. Without being able to see the totality of the play, we can still deduce that the corner has deep zone responsibility and Thomas Davis, the linebacker covering Michael Thomas, has flat coverage. What that means is that when Kamara goes deep, the corner goes with him, while Davis has to cover the first out-breaking route. All that adds up to a linebacker covering Michael Thomas in space, something Drew Brees will eat up almost every time.
Before we go to the next play, take a mental snapshot of that formation and play; specifically, Kamara lined up wide with Michael Thomas in the slot and Drew Brees lined up in shotgun with an empty backfield. Sean Payton and Drew Brees will use it again.
Look at that, the very formation from the previous play and almost the same route combination. This time, instead of Thomas breaking out towards the sideline, he’s running a 5-yard hitch. The red zone compresses the field and means that passes have to be out quicker and cornerbacks will be closer to the line of scrimmage. Instead of Kamara’s cornerback being 9 yards off the line of scrimmage like the prior play, he’s now 5 yards off. A lot closer, and a lot less room for Thomas to get open with an out-breaking route. So being the smart player that he is, Thomas settles in an open area, claps his hands together, and gets a Brees-delivered pass on the money.
At this point, Thomas Davis is fed up with the Saints spreading their defense out and forcing him to cover the best receiver. But when you keep playing zone coverage, you’re allowing the Saints to dictate that matchup. The alternative would be to play man coverage, with Thomas Davis matched out wide on Alvin Kamara; that’s not a great option either, given Kamara’s receiving ability.
By the way, if you’re keeping count, Mike Thomas now has 4 targets and 4 catches for 45 yards on the first drive alone. And the drive ain’t done yet.
Here you see several traits on display: strength through contact, effort, ball skills and even mental processing. Thomas is the sole receiver lined up to the right of the offense and he’s running what originally looks like a slant. However, if he kept running he would basically be running into the underneath coverage of No. 20 Kurt Coleman.
Instead, he converts his route to try to get open to the outside corner of the end zone. Daryl Worley is the cornerback in coverage on the play and he interferes with Thomas’ attempt to break his route outside. Despite the penalty and contact, ‘Can’t Guard Mike’ secures the ball and plays like the big, physical receiver that he is on the way to a touchdown catch.
Michael Thomas on the first offensive series: 5 targets, 5 catches, 50 yards, 1 touchdown.
Let’s skip ahead to the start of the 2nd half. Thomas has caught one pass since that opening series, and it was an 11-yard gain for a first down on what was a well-executed wide receiver screen.
Here we are at 2nd & 8, with the Saints again going back to that same formation we took a mental snapshot of earlier. Drew Brees in shotgun. Kamara motions out wide right. Thomas lined up in the slot inside Kamara. Zone look again, with a corner matched up on Kamara. It’s the first drive after halftime and adjustments have been made by both teams. Are the Panthers going to let No. 13 continue to abuse their linebacker on these quick outs in space?
The Panthers were having no more of that Thomas-whips-a-linebacker nonsense. They were sick of it. So what do they do? Well, the Panthers show a similar look defensively but instead they’re running a trap coverage. Essentially, the outside corner is going to break on any out-breaking route from receiver Michael Thomas. The defense is designed to trick a QB into throwing an interception, often of the pick-six variety.
But this is Drew Brees and Sean Payton we’re talking about. It’s not easy to trick this quarterback, and the Saints are anticipating this adjustment from the Panthers. Instead, Drew Brees sees the corner breaking down on Thomas’ route and he throws the go route to Alvin Kamara. The problem? Kamara has a mental lapse and doesn’t finish his route.
Brees ends up giving him an earful on the play, as it ruined what could have been a 20+ yard gain. The play was a negative result for the Saints, but it shows exactly the type of effect Michael Thomas’ dominance has on a defense and the ways that Payton and Brees can manipulate the defense because of him.
Now for a play where his dominance ended in a positive result.
Here, the Panthers are going to run man coverage across the board, with a single safety deep. It looks like traditional Cover 1, but Carolina is going to bracket Michael Thomas with safety/linebacker hybrid Shaq Thompson trailing and safety Kurt Coleman over the top. Drew Brees does Drew Brees things, pumping the deep safety away from Ted Ginn and then coming back and hitting his deep threat streaking down the field for a TD. But the score doesn’t happen if No. 13 wasn’t previously shredding the defense and requiring the explicit attention of two defenders. Also a nice touch to see the star receiver happy for his fellow pass catcher.
Here’s a better look at the bracket coverage on Michael Thomas. Notice No. 20 Kurt Coleman staying on top of Thomas’ route, maintaining double coverage on the receiver.
The combination of Alvin Kamara’s ability to play outside and Michael Thomas’ proficiency in the slot will make these types of defensive conundrums commonplace. Do you want to play man coverage with a linebacker on speedy Kamara out wide? That could be a big play waiting to happen. And yet if you don’t want to do that, then you’ll have to deal with Thomas eating up the inside and underneath zones. Not a fun position to be in as a defensive coach. Either way, you can expect Drew Brees to make the correct throws to the open guys and keep the offense rolling.
All videos and clips are the sole intellectual property of the NFL.