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Saints Film Room: Michael Thomas in the zone

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From the start of the game, Michael Thomas was fired up and able to take it over on his way to posting a franchise record.

NFL: NFC Divisional Playoff-Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

In his pregame speech to the team, Drew Brees talked about being “lethal.” Front and center for the pep-talk was Michael Thomas, who was completely zoned in.

Thomas would in fact be lethal against the Philadelphia Eagles, setting the new franchise post-season single game receiving yards record, gaining 171 yards on 12 receptions.

The offense used multiple formations and alignments in order to get him open, with seven of the twelve receptions coming from a trips alignment that helped the Saints flood the Eagles’ zone defense.

Thomas routes vs Eagles

Down & Distance Formation Personnel Route Alignment
Down & Distance Formation Personnel Route Alignment
2nd and 19 Shotgun 11 quick-in 2x2
3rd and 10 Shotgun 11 dig 2x2
1st and 10 Singleback 11 15 yard dig 2x2
2nd and 13 Shotgun 11 drag 3x1
3rd and 9 Shotgun 11 quick-in 3x2
2nd and 7 Shotgun 11 dig 3x2
2nd and 9 Shotgun 11 quick-in 3x1
2nd and 20 Shotgun 11 dig 3x1
3rd and 16 Shotgun 11 curl 3x1
1st and goal Singleback 12 fade 2x1
1st and 10 Singleback 12 quick-out 2x2
3rd and 13 Shotgun 11 dig 3x1

Playing against zone defenses, receivers need to be able to identify the holes in coverage in order to get open. Here is an example of Thomas running a drag route and finding the sweet spot in the defense to become open.

The offense will come out in shotgun with 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end [Taysom Hill]) with trips (three receivers) to the left. Thomas is lined up in the slot and will run a “drag” route while Ted Ginn will run a seam route in order to clear out the middle of the field for Thomas.

Thomas will recognize the zone defense and settle in the hole between defensive back and linebacker when they switch coverage responsibilities. Brees is able to step up in the pocket to avoid the pressure coming from the edge and hits Thomas for a four yard gain.

On the next play, the Saints will run a similar concept to the one above, but this time out of an empty set (no running back in backfield) with Kamara split wide (bottom of screen).

The play called here is known as the “levels” concept. This is a great play to call against zone defenses, especially cover-2. It consists of the #3 receiver (Ginn, top of screen, closest to the offensive line) running a seam route to clear out the middle of the field. Thomas is lined up in the slot (#2 receiver) and will run a “quick-in” route with Kirkwood (#1, top of screen) running a slightly deeper in route. The safety (#37) and the corner back (#24) will carry the seam route ran by Ginn and clear out the middle of the field for Thomas to fill the void.

The Eagles have their dime package (six defensive backs) on the field and will drop their zones back to the goal line in a “picket-fence” defense that Jim Schwartz calls “sticks.” This is in order to keep all passes in front of them and make the tackle short of the goal line. Corner back Cre’von Leblanc (#34) does a good job at recognizing the vacated zone and will follow Thomas and tackle him short of the goal line with help from linebacker Nigel Bradham (#53).

The last play we’re going to go over came on a third and long at the end of the first quarter. The Saints will call a “dagger” concept that is perfect for the cover-3 the Eagles defense is in.

The dagger is a three route concept that includes a go route from the slot receiver, a dig from the outside receiver, and a drag route from a back side receiver.

The go route, ran by Ginn from the slot here, is used to clear out the middle of the defense and take the center field safety with him. It then becomes a high-low read for the quarterback between Josh Hill running the drag route and Thomas on his dig route. The drag route should stretch the defense horizontally and force the underneath defenders to sink down to cover, which then creates a void in the middle of the field for the dig route.

Here, the play works just as designed and Thomas is able to pick up 21 yards and the first down.

As you can see, the game-plan had plenty of passing concepts designed to beat the zone coverage that the Eagles predominately used. Sean Payton has historically gotten the best of Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, scoring at least 31 points on his defense the last four times they have faced off against each other prior to this game.