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Isolating the Michael Thomas variable

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How the Saints use Michael Thomas as an isolated receiver.

Pittsburgh Steelers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

A lot of ink has been spilled on the internet about how to defend offenses when they line up in trips formations. Everyone wants to know how to deal with trips because the offense is looking to facilitate certain areas of the field through pre-snap. The formation stresses a defense because it’s not balanced, ie. two receivers on each side.

Let’s go to the google:

The NFL, however, apparently doesn’t believe in different ways to defend trips. I wanted to look at all the times that Michael Thomas was targeted as the isolated receiver in a trips set to see a) how the Saints got him the ball and b) how defenses dealt with having a top 5 receiver isolated on the weakside.

The NFL dealt with Michael Thomas like they dealt with any other receiver, which was disappointing. High school and college coaches come into games with so many trips checks that I just didn’t see when this sampling of NFL defenses played the Saints.

A few issues before we get into the numbers:

  1. These are only the targets that went to MT when he was lined up as the ISO X, so there’s bound to be a lot more snaps on run plays and pass plays where he was lined up there but Brees threw elsewhere.
  2. The hash marks are very close together in the NFL so it’s possible that is why NFL defenses don’t have to deal with Trips in the same way that college and high school defenses do.
  3. The Saints schedule of opposing defenses might have made a difference. Teams like Buffalo, Indy and Chicago, to name a few, run more out of 2-high safety coverages and the Saints didn’t see them in 2018.

Okay so, I charted 33 times where Thomas was targeted as the ISO X receiver. 27 of those were against either Cover 1 or Cover 3. The distinction is kind of irrelevant when talking about the backside of the formation.

With a safety that has to patrol the middle of the field, it only leaves one defender on the backside of the formation making him locked on that receiver.

You can see there’s no difference in those two pictures in how the backside is dealt with. There are some Cover 3 variations where the cornerback could come off of the receiver if he runs a shallow route or drag.

At the end of the day, Payton and Brees knew what they were going to get by putting Thomas on the backside of trips. They basically decided that when they wanted to get a free 6 yards they had it by calling a hitch route for Thomas. Didn’t matter who was covering.

Thomas went 5 for 7 on these routes. Pitch and catch. That’s Michael Thomas on an island because it’s too far for any other defender to get near. You’ll take that matchup every day.

If the Saints wanted to get Thomas involved in the intermediate game, they needed a way to occupy the first inside defender. Good thing the Saints have another player that occupies a lot of attention.

If Thomas runs a curl or dig route or any really any route that breaks inside, he’s running into the linebacker or down safety.

He can be covered over top by the cornerback and underneath by the linebacker...

...but if you add Alvin Kamara to the mix, that first inside defender can’t just drop into zone (even if it’s cover 3). He has to chase Kamara which opens space for Thomas. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Maybe against an average player out of the backfield you can drop deep, force the throw underneath and rally to make a tackle. Can’t do that against Kamara.

I charted only 1 true fade route run by Thomas and it was also the only coverage I counted as a true double team. Even though the double is not done very well, this was similar to how the Eagles played Thomas the whole game.

The team also liked using Thomas on drag routes to complete one of their 4 Verts variations.

The idea is that if the corner locks on Thomas, there’s room to throw the crossing pattern from the #3 receiver. If not you can just throw underneath to Thomas.

When Brees targeted Thomas in this concept he was 5 for 5. With that said, this was often the last read for Brees because he’s trying to hit the deeper routes first.

Drew Brees did have a pretty significant completion on this concept this year, however.

Thomas was targeted a couple times on plays that are really designed to go to Kamara. The first one is him catching a sit route against Cover 2 when the corner squats in the flat to prevent the Kamara wheel.

The other is on a corner route in their weak side option concept when, again, the corner squats in cover 2 to bracket Kamara (although the ball should probably still go to Kamara)

I found 3 examples of double moves. The first was a fake pick route and go where the offense tried to make it look like Kamara’s wheel route. Didn’t work.

They also ran a true slant n’ go against the Eagles as well.

The third was this short post-corner-comeback in the endzone against the Bengals for a touchdown.

I expected to find juicer action when I went through the film but there really wasn’t anything too complex about how the Saints deployed Thomas from that alignment and the responses by defense weren’t that complex either.